What is a Terrapin?

For most people, terrapins are cute little turtles that are not quite sea turtles but not quite tortoises either. They seem to stand somewhere in between.

They originate from North America, particularly around the Gulf of Mexico, where they live in brackish waters, especially around river deltas, swamps, and mangroves. They are good swimmers but also love to bask in the sun, soaking up the heat—which is why people adopting terrapins may need a water heater and a heat lamp.

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HITOP Adjustable Aquarium Heater with Protective Cover, 30W 50W 120W Turtle and Fish Tank Heater for 5L to 120L Fresh Water and Seawater water Thermostat (50W)
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LEDGLE 50W/75W Heat Lamp with Lampshade, UVA/UVB E27 Heat Lamp Bulb, for Reptile Turtle Chicken Coop Lizard Snake
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Terrapins became fashionable in the United Kingdom after the film Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and many people adopted one as a pet. They start as small, penny-sized animals but within a few years can become as big as a dinner plate, which often takes terrapin owners aback.

Where do terrapins come from?

The term “terrapin” is derived from the Indian Algonquian word ‘torope’ which means “little turtle.” A terrapin (TEHR uh pihn) is an aquatic freshwater turtle that can live in freshwater as well as salt water.

While related, terrapins are different from turtles and tortoises. Even though they resemble other turtles living in the sea in that they have webbed feet and greenish-brown thin shells, they are in a category of their own. For example, they don’t have flippers like sea turtles, but they are good swimmers, unlike tortoises. They also like to warm their bodies in the sun, like tortoises do, which sea turtles never feel the need for.

Terrapins are cold-blooded reptiles with tough skin (without hair or feathers) and breathe through their lungs. Out of 350 turtle species throughout the world, only one species of terrapin exists, which is further divided into 7 subspecies.

The term “terrapin” typically refers to the diamondback terrapin, Malaclemys terrapin. European settlers in North America were the first to name this wild species living in brackish water. These terrapins can be found in coastal areas, in creeks, and in not-so-deep marshes.

Terrapins are the only kind of turtles that find their homes in such different habitats. Diamondback terrapins are closely related to turtles living in freshwater, including map turtles and red-eared sliders, except that they are the only turtles to live in salt marshes.

What do terrapins eat?

While terrapins are omnivores, they love seafood such as shrimp and crabs, molluscs, sea snails, and even insects, as well as some marine plants. 

Terrapin owners can feed them terrapin pellets available at pet shops. These pellets contain all the nutrients and vitamins that terrapins require and that they would find in the wild.

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Supa Turtle & Terrapins Food Superior Mix 1 Litre Bucket | Made Using Premium Quality Natural Ingredients
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Remember that terrapins have powerful jaws and that females have stronger jaws than males. If you choose to feed your terrapin human food, be watchful when feeding them, as their bite can be quite significant.

Another interesting fact is that terrapins can tell the difference regarding water salinity. They can differentiate between seawater and freshwater, which is why they like living in areas where both types of water are available. Terrapin owners may need a water conditioner to make sure that the water is right for their shelled pets.

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How do terrapins reproduce?

Unlike tortoises, terrapins stay mostly in water and generally come out on land only to lay eggs and bask under the sun. They live on narrow parts of land that border the sea or bodies of water so they can have a choice between land and water activity.

Although they are good swimmers, they don’t move far from the shore and usually spend their whole lives in the same place, unlike sea turtles who are true voyagers and can cross entire oceans.

Adult females lay eggs annually between April and July. Females don’t sit on their eggs but cover them with sand to keep them warm and let them hatch on their own. It usually takes 60 days for terrapin eggs to hatch.

During winter, they go into hibernation and are active only when the weather is warm.

A typical terrapin’s lifespan is around 20 to 40 years. An adult terrapin can weigh up to one kilo, which is quite impressive compared to how small they start. Amazingly enough, females are bigger than males, which is quite unusual in the animal kingdom.

Terrapins used to be a culinary delicacy

Until the 1930s, these turtles were widely hunted for their meat. It is said that in the 18th and 19th centuries, slaves were given terrapins as part of their diet to the point they complained that their diet had become too terrapin centred.

Terrapins gradually became more exclusive and by the early 20th century were considered the ultimate culinary delicacy. Quality restaurants used to include a dish with terrapins as an exclusive delicacy.

As a result of this extensive hunting, terrapins came almost to the brink of extinction. Their numbers have slowly recovered since then, but they still remain a vulnerable species according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, with some species listed as critically endangered.

Are terrapins in danger?

The name “terrapin” is normally used in the United Kingdom for those turtles that are kept as pets, sometimes termed “pond turtles.”

They are small, harmless, and very shy in nature. Because of their restrained nature, they are very difficult to catch. They are tolerant of other animals but dive into the water the moment they are approached.

In the wild, terrapins mainly die because they get caught in crab traps and drown. They may also fall prey to predators such as raccoons or die due to high populations.

Another factor that puts pressure on terrapin populations is human activity. Like other animals, terrapins witness their habitats encroached on by human construction. Coastal areas where terrapins thrive are in high demand for human building. Terrapin habitats thus become endangered and humans limit the areas where terrapins can reproduce. As there are not enough egg-laying sites for them, their numbers inevitably decrease.

What’s the terrapins’ status in the United Kingdom?

Terrapins have been found in the wild in creeks and ponds across the United Kingdom, particularly in London.

Terrapins are not native to Britain, although they were until 8,000 years ago when temperatures and the climate became too harsh for terrapins. Because they are not native to the UK, there is a concern they might become invasive and displace other species.

As a result of such concerns, it has been illegal to purchase a terrapin as a pet since August 2016. Even so, it is estimated there are currently 4,000 terrapins in the wild currently in the UK. Terrapin rescuers don’t typically see hatchlings in British ponds, which means that terrapins probably don’t reproduce on British shores. It is, therefore, assumed that most of them were pre-owned and released in the wild.

Terrapin owners who had terrapins before that threshold, are allowed to keep them but it is strictly forbidden to release terrapins in the wild. Previous owners who can’t look after their pet terrapin need to find someone who is willing to adopt it.

If you would love to give a good home to a poor unwanted pet terrapin, we have provided a complete handbook. Please check out the complete terrapin guide to learn everything you need to know about looking after your very own pet terrapin!

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