A couple weeks ago, while standing on a boardwalk in a salt marsh in South Carolina, I saw this:
A turtle stuck its head out of the tidal creek flowing below me. (Though I didn’t actually get a photo of it. I found this photo on Wikimedia Commons).
I was 98% sure the turtle I saw was a diamondback terrapin, because they are pretty much the only kind of turtle you are going to see in a salt marsh on the east coast of the United States. Also, it looked like a diamondback terrapin.
I only saw the turtle for like a second and a half, but it was a big deal to me, because it was only the second time I have ever seen a diamondback terrapin in twenty years of visiting salt marshes. One reason it is hard to see diamondback terrapins is because they immediately dive underwater to hide whenever they see something they think might possibly want to eat them or catch them and make them live in an aquarium in an eight-year old’s bedroom. But an even bigger reason it is hard to see diamondback terrapins in the 21st century is because there just aren’t as many diamondback terrapins as there once were.
Two hundred years ago there were lots of diamondback terrapins in salt marshes. But in the late 19th century and early 20th century they started disappearing. This was mainly because diamondback terrapins had the unfortunate problem of tasting good in soup. So many people wanted to eat diamondback terrapin stew back then that by the end of the 19th century, it was estimated trappers were collecting 400,000 pounds of diamondback terrapins a year out of their salt marsh habitats. Unfortunately, this was faster than diamondback terrapins could have babies to replace the adults who were now in people’s stomachs. By the early 20th Century, it became harder and harder to find a diamondback terrapin.
Diamondback terrapins were probably on their way to extinction, except that didn't end up happening. Part of the reason they were saved was probably because it had become really hard for trappers to make a living catching an animal that by then was almost impossible to find. But part of the reason may also have been a 1920 Constitutional Amendment that made it illegal for people to buy or drink alcohol. I’m not kidding. This amendment started the period in American history called Prohibition. Prohibition may have saved diamondback terrapins because the recipe for terrapin stew (you can read a disturbing recipe for terrapin stew here) calls for sherry, which is an alcoholic drink. All alcoholic drinks were illegal in the United States during Prohibition.
Prohibition didn’t actually stop a lot of people from buying alcohol. But, if people were willing to break the law to buy sherry, they were probably more interested in drinking it themselves than pouring it on chunks of a turtle in a stew pot. Without one of the key ingredients, a lot fewer people were eating diamondback terrapin stew, meaning fewer diamondback terrapins were being taken out of salt marshes, meaning diamondback terrapins were now once again having babies faster than they were dying.
Prohibition didn’t quite work out the way people hoped it would, so it was ended in 1933. That might have meant that diamondback terrapins were in trouble again, except by that time another thing was happening that made life for Americans and diamondback terrapins very different from what it once was. This period of history was called the Great Depression. The Great Depression was a time when lots of Americans lost their jobs and did not have enough money to buy bread, much less expensive diamondback terrapin stew.
With very little demand for diamondback terrapins, the diamondback terrapin populations in salt marshes continued to grow.
By the time the Depression ended in 1945, it had been 25 years since people were regularly eating diamondback terrapins stew. People had basically forgotten about it and had no interest in bringing it back, especially when there were exciting new things to eat like Spam and frozen peas.
Today in 2016, diamondback terrapins are doing much better than they were doing in 1916, but not nearly as well as they were doing in 1816. Even though they rarely get eaten now (well at least in the United States) diamondback terrapins still have to deal with major problems, mainly from habitat loss and crab traps.
Hopefully you are now wondering how a crab trap could hurt a diamondback terrapin, because that’s what I’m going to write about in the next post, as well as tell you about a day I spent with scientists who are trying to solve the crab trap problem for diamondback terrapins.
To learn more about diamondback terrapins, read my book A Day in the Salt Marsh.
Online References and Resources:
Connecticut Department of Energy & Environmental Protection. "Northern Diamonback Terrapin."
Encyclopedia of Life. "Malaclemys: Diamondback Terrapin."
US Fish and Wildlife. "Diamondback Terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin)."
Virginia Institute of Marine Science. "Diamondback Terrapins."
If you want to watch an excellent documentary about Prohibition that doesn't mention diamondback terrapins at all, check out Ken Burns's and Lynn Novick's Prohibition.
Photos and Images:
Click the photos and images used above to find their sources.