Public help sought in marsh turtle study

Among the reptiles featured at the Bulls Bay Nature Festival was a diamondback terrapin.

The other turtle watch is getting underway. Keep an eye out for the singular diamondback terrapin.

State wildlife biologists are asking the public for help locating nests, as well as turtles struck by vehicles or captured in gear, such as fishing lines or crab traps. It’s part of the second round of a multi-year study to try to get a read on the population and its flux.

“Public input will help us get a better sense of overall distribution of diamondback terrapins in South Carolina so that we can make sure we’re conducting research in the right areas,” said biologist Mike Arendt, who leads terrapin research at the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.

The only estuarine turtle in North America, the terrapins are an alpha predator of the marsh, eating periwinkle snails that can destroy marsh grass. The marshes are the heart of the estuary, vital to its wildlife, including shrimp, and to water quality. They are filters that help keep the waters clean.

The onyx-eyed terrapins are gorgeous, spotted and variably colored, with a wide variety of distinct diamond patterns on their shells. They usually reach lengths of 5 to 8 inches.

The turtles are thought to be in long-term decline. But little is known about the species’ habits, and the DNR study is among only a few of its kind.

So far, the study has concentrated along the lower Ashley River, considered good habitat for the terrapins. But so few other surveys this concentrated have been done that there’s virtually no point of comparison, particularly with a habitat that’s not so good.

Diamondback terrapin sightings can be reported online by a web search for “diamondback terrapin reporting form survey.” Injured diamondback terrapins can be reported by calling 1-800-922-5431 or taken to a local wildlife rehabilitation center.

Reach Bo Petersen at 843-937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.