Studying Maryland’s Official State Reptile on Pax River’s Beaches

NAS Patuxent River Tester
Thursday, August 6, 2020

Since the end of May, a group of dedicated volunteers has been combing the beaches at NAS Patuxent River trying to learn and document what they can about the installation’s Northern Diamondback Terrapin population and their nesting habitat.

Pax River’s open white sandy beaches, dunes and maritime forest provide the terrapins an ideal environment — one that is becoming sparser throughout the state. The species, once plentiful, now struggles to survive.

“Because terrapin studies in Maryland show the species is in trouble, we want to do what we can with our habitat,” said Jackie Smith, natural resources specialist with the Pax River Environmental Division, who is overseeing the program. “Aside from some material cost and the minimal cost of having a Student Conservation Association (SCA) volunteer to conduct some surveys and manage the project, the bulk of the field work is done by local volunteers.”

Northern Diamondback terrapins, North America’s only estuarine turtle, are about the size of a quarter when they emerge as hatchlings. Terrapins have a low egg-to-hatchling survival rate, as nests often fall prey to predators.

“When a nest is found, we uncover, weigh and measure the eggs, replace them, re-cover, and then place a predator exclusion device over the top [to protect the nest],” explained Rebecca Stump, the SCA intern who has headed the terrapin survey onboard Pax River for the past four years.

This year has shown a huge increase in predator activity and Stump has a theory as to why that might be.

See Rebecca’s hypothesis at the NAS Patuxent River Tester