Terrapins lie somewhere between turtles and tortoises. They happily live in water but also like to bask in the sun. Like turtles, they are omnivores. Unlike them, they don’t have flippers. Instead, they have webbed feet—unlike their land cousins that have feet.
Terrapins originate from the Americas and were initially found on the east coast, from Massachusetts down to Florida and across the Gulf of Mexico up to Texas.
Their name comes from the Algonquin indigenous people who called these turtles ‘torope.’ Terrapins like brackish waters, which are less salty than seawater but not freshwater either. However, in captivity, terrapins can happily survive in fresh water.
While this blog often discusses how terrapins can survive in our homes, what about those found in the wild?
Terrapins thrive in brackish water
Terrapins can be found in the wild in more places than most people realise, including around estuaries, wetlands, marshes and mangrove swamps, lagoons, and river mouths where salt water mixes with fresh water.
Unlike sea turtles, terrapins don’t migrate. While they are good swimmers, they spend most of their lives on the same shore. This lets them enjoy swimming along the shore but also step out for food. It also lets them bask in the sunshine, which they need as they are cold-blooded creatures and need the warmth of the sun to warm their body.
They eat sea life and plants
Terrapins are omnivores, unlike tortoises, which are strictly vegetarian. They are also surprisingly good hunters: despite their cuteness and small size, terrapins have powerful jaws, with females having bigger jaws than males. They eat molluscs, snails, and clams as their strong jaws let them chew hard shells. They also eat fish and algae.
Terrapins must have access to fresh water for drinking and are quite smart at finding water sources around their homes.
How can terrapins manage water salinity?
Water salinity refers to how much salt there is in a body of water. Fish that live at sea, for example, need saline water (saltwater) to survive. Even though terrapins are not fish, they thrive in medium water salinity. They have salt glands in their eyes that eliminate the salt from their bodies so it doesn’t affect them.
How do terrapins reproduce?
Like other members of the chelonian family, terrapins dig a nest on a sandy shore and lay their eggs in the summer when temperatures are at their hottest. The eggs need 60 days to hatch at 25 degrees Celsius. The average number of eggs ranges from 4 to 10.
Like turtles, terrapin mothers don’t sit around waiting for the eggs to hatch. Once the female has laid her eggs, she leaves them, letting nature take its course.
Are there terrapins in the wild in the UK?
Terrapins used to live in the UK 8,000 years ago
Terrapins were present on the UK shores 8,000 years ago but climate change made conditions difficult for them to survive. As a result, terrapins had not been naturally found in the UK for the last 7,000 years.
This, of course, has changed in the last decades—thanks, in part, to TV!
The terrapin population in the UK exploded after the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles craze.
Unfortunately, while terrapins start as small as a 50p coin, they grow big and require larger water tanks, more attention, and more food. Many terrapin owners who found it harder than they expected to deal with their pets as they grew, released them into the wild. Despite UK’s occasionally harsh climate, many terrapins managed to survive—even to thrive.
British climate conditions make terrapin survival in the wild difficult
British weather and climate conditions are not conducive to terrapin survival. It is often too cold for terrapins and there is not enough sunshine, which is essential for the terrapins to metabolise vitamin D and calcium. When terrapins don’t get enough sunlight, they display softer and more damaged shells. This can happen even to pet terrapins, which is why terrapins need a heat lamp to survive.
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In winter, terrapins hibernate. However, they need to store enough fat in the summer to keep them going during the cold months. If they don’t have enough food in the summer and there is not enough sunshine to metabolise calcium, terrapins are less likely to survive hibernation.
Even so, there are increasing sightings of terrapins in ponds and lakes across the UK. Most of them come from released animals whose owners left them to fend for themselves in the wild.
Releasing terrapins in the wild is illegal
Terrapins seem to be adapting to British climate conditions. They appear to multiply in the wild and, as our climate becomes milder and warmer, may make an unexpected comeback 7,000 years after their extinction from British shores.
While this is great news for terrapin lovers, it raises concerns that their lack of natural predators may result in a disruption of the UK’s fragile ecosystems. That is why it is illegal to release a terrapin in the wild, amidst concerns that terrapins could compete with native wildlife and unbalance delicate habitats. For instance, terrapin faeces could cause mineral imbalances in ponds, thus changing the chemical content of the water where other animals live.
Is there a future for terrapins in the wild in the UK?
Terrapins are still considered non-native to the UK. Besides the ban on terrapin release in the wild, there are organisations that capture terrapins from ponds, lakes, and creeks and move them to terrapin welfare centres and refuges.
It remains to be seen whether terrapins manage to reproduce in large numbers on British shores. Scientists are still evaluating their reproduction rate and adaptability to British climate conditions.
If terrapins do manage to settle back, a new equilibrium will need to be established between them and native fauna and flora. Some species may struggle while others may find symbiosis with terrapins tolerable and even beneficial.
Terrapins used to be considered a delicacy
A major reason for decreased terrapin populations is that they used to be a culinary delicacy at the beginning of the 20th century.
While indigenous tribes used to eat terrapins for centuries, when the United States got more populated there was increased demand for terrapins as a dish. Restaurants used to serve terrapins as a luxury gourmet food, sold at exorbitant prices.
Unfortunately, terrapin reproduction rates could not keep up with demand. As a result, a slow decline in terrapin numbers had already started by the 1930s.
Terrapin habitats are in danger
Human encroachment on coasts, which are terrapins’ natural habitats, has put terrapin survival in the wild at risk.
An increasing number of cities are built on coastal areas or riverbanks. People compete with terrapins for space. Human by-products such as waste and chemicals jeopardise the quality of terrapin environments.
In addition, overfishing both limits the amount of food terrapins can find and directly kills any terrapins that get caught in nets alongside crabs and other crustaceans and fish.
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