In Search of Elusive Diamondbacks in Southern R.I.

By ecoRI News staff

KINGSTON, R.I. — Recent anecdotal evidence has suggested that the elusive diamondback terrapin may be breeding in southern Rhode Island, so scientists from the University of Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Natural History Survey have sent URI student Meghan Beatty to find out if it’s true.

A resident of Sandwich, Mass., who grew up in Bristol, Beatty has spent her summer paddling a kayak along the perimeter of Rhode Island’s coastal ponds looking for the telltale signs of the turtle.

“Until now, the only known population of terrapins in Rhode Island has been in Hundred Acre Cove in Barrington and in the Palmer River in Warren,” said Beatty, a wildlife and conservation biology major. “But there have been various reports in South County of both hatchlings and adults sighted, so I’m trying to scientifically verify that they’re there.”

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Found in salt marsh estuaries from Cape Cod to the Florida Keys and the Gulf of Mexico, diamondback terrapins are the only turtle species in the country that lives in brackish water. Named for the diamond pattern on its shell, the turtle grows to about 8 inches in length with a body color that varies from gray and brown to yellow. In Rhode Island, it’s considered endangered and is protected.

Working in collaboration with URI researchers Peter Paton and Malia Schwartz, Beatty developed a protocol for surveying Ninigret Pond, Green Hill Pond, Quonochontaug Pond, Winnipaug Pond and Little Narragansett Bay. Every day just before high tide, she launches her kayak in one of the ponds, collects a wide variety of environmental measurements, and traverses a route around the pond looking for terrapins.

“The turtles bask in the water with their heads above the surface and their legs splayed, so I scan the water with my binoculars looking for their little heads popping up,” Beatty said.

So far she has detected terrapins in just one of the ponds she has surveyed — Winnapaug Pond in Westerly. There she has seen as many as nine terrapins, and she believes there are probably more.

“It makes sense they’re there, because hatchlings have been seen near Misquamicut Beach on the southern edge of Winnapaug Pond,” she said. “We have no idea if they are still nesting there, so it will be interesting to see if we find any hatchlings this year.”

Diamondback terrapins lay their eggs in June and July, and after a 60- to 75-day incubation period they hatch in August and September.

“It’s very exciting to have found them,” Beatty said. “But we don’t know where they’ve come from, and we have no idea how long they’ve been there. No one has ever looked for them there, so they could have been there for a long time.”

Beatty said she has distributed flyers and wallet cards to bait shops, beaches and elsewhere to encourage people in the vicinity of the coastal ponds to keep an eye out for the turtles and to report them if any are seen. Those who see a diamondback terrapin in southern Rhode Island can report them to the researchers by sending an e-mail to terrapins@rinhs.org. A photograph documenting the sighting should be included.

Beatty’s research was conducted as part of the URI Coastal Fellows Program, a initiative designed to involve undergraduate students in addressing current environmental problems. Now in its 18th year, the program pairs students with a mentor and research staff to help them gain skills relevant to their academic major and future occupations. The terrapin study is funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Coastal Program.