Barnstable Clean Water Coalition (BCWC) has been an active participant in the town of Barnstable’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Headstart Program for diamondback terrapins since 2017. This program was created to combat the decline in diamondback terrapin populations stemming from over-hunting in the early 20th century. Although it is now illegal to hunt terrapins, there are other factors that still threaten the population from human activities including the reduction of salt marsh habitat, marine pollution, and off-road vehicles. In particular, off-roading increases the likelihood of disturbing, injuring, or even killing nesting females and migrating hatchlings.
In Barnstable, diamondback terrapins are found on Sandy Neck, where terrapin nests laid on sandy roads are carefully removed and incubated by DNR staff. Hatchlings are then distributed to schools, libraries, and other organizations to be raised over the winter. In late spring, the terrapins are released back into the salt marsh at Sandy Neck. The first year of life is most critical for a diamondback terrapin; their small size allows for easy predation. The Headstart Program gives terrapins an opportunity to grow without risk. When they are released in late spring, they are roughly the size of a three-year old. The Headstart Program allows terrapin hatchlings to grow in a safe place and serves as an educational opportunity about turtle conservation for school-aged children and the public.
Diamondback terrapins (Malaclemys terrapin) are brackish water turtles found in salt marshes along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the United States. They are classified as threatened and protected under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act. The carapace (top shell) is unique, with distinct concentric ring patterns and a pronounced ridged keel. Their gray skin is spotted with green to black flecks, the larger of which appear along the neck. Both sexes have strongly webbed feet. Adult females range from 6-9 inches in length, while males only reach 4-6 inches.