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Herps of SC/GA
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Stop #7: Savannah National Wildlife Refuge, SC, and Savannah, GA
Featured Herp: Diamondback Terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin)

shell pattern
Terrapin shell

As the East Aiken classes walk the South Carolina coast, just about all of them are impressed with the Low Country beauty, particularly as they skirt the salt marshes south of Charleston, view the live oaks on a few barrier islands, and finally reach the inland pools of the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge near Savannah, GA. The school arrives near Savannah on October 18, 1999.

It’s likely that some of East Aiken’s students will one day go on to become scientists. It is also likely that others will choose careers as artists. We usually tend to think of the two fields as virtual opposites. After all —what could be more different than art and science? Perhaps in some cases that is true. But, when it comes to the wonders of the natural world, might the disciplines not have similar purpose?

bronze sculpture of otter with a turtle on its nose
"Water Dance"
bronze by Carl McCleskey

Here’s the deal. Both art and science are built on creative acts. Imagination, creativity, and passion are crucial qualities for artists and scientists alike. An artist "captures" the essence of a diamondback terrapin, whether in photo, on canvas, or in bronze. The audience viewing the work, at some level, comes to "know" the terrapin, and the emotional response to this natural beauty may result in a concern for the well being of terrapins. A scientist captures (literally) terrapins in a different way, and studies and measures and weighs and marks them, and then teaches others of terrapin natural history so that the turtles are appreciated on a rational level. Whether an audience is more impacted by the bronze sculptures of artists at the Charleston Southeastern Wildlife Exposition or drawings by artists from the Savannah College of Art and Design, or the science of a wildlife biologist probably depends on the individual. The turtles probably don’t care—they just hope the conservation message gets out one way or another!

Art and Science

"…the act of creation (lies) in the discovery of a hidden likeness. The scientist or the artist takes two facts or experiences which are separate; he finds in them a likeness which had not been seen before; and he creates a unity by showing the likeness.

The great artist works as devotedly to uncover the implications of his vision as does the great scientist. They grow, they haunt his thought, and their most inspired flash is the end of a lifetime of silent exploration."

—J. Bronowski in Science and Human Values


Diamondback Terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin)

terrapin crawling towards the camera
Diamondback Terrapin
terrapin on marsh mud

Diamondback terrapins inhabit the salt marshes and mangroves along most of the eastern and Gulf coasts, on the Atlantic Coast from Massachusetts to the Florida Keys, and along the Gulf Coast to Texas. One of the major research sites for terrapins is in South Carolina, between Charleston and Beaufort. Researchers from the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory first began studying diamondback terrapins on the South Carolina coast in 1983. (Learn more about SREL Herpetological Studies.)

Over the past 16 years 1274 turtles have been captured, measured, marked, and released back to their home tidal creek. Many of those turtles have been recaptured one or more times, allowing the researchers to better understand the terrapin’s growth rate, habitat need, dietary preferences, and movement patterns.

A few of the observations of this study are:

  • Many more males were captured than females (758 individuals to 502).
  • No babies and few juveniles were captured, meaning they probably use a different habitat than the adult turtles.

  • Turtles rarely moved from one tidal creek to another—even to creeks only a short distance away. Even after Hurricane Hugo tossed boats around from one side of an island to another, the turtles were still in their same creeks!
  • The turtle population in one tidal creek has virtually gone extinct, coincident with the increase in recreational crab trapping. Small turtles can be trapped in crab traps, and when this happens they usually drown.
southeastern distribution

The results of the study, in conjunction with similar studies elsewhere, show that there will be challenges facing diamondback terrapin populations throughout its range. [See more details on the species that is the Maryland state reptile.] As coastal areas become more and more populated (with humans), people will need to become more aware of the needs of the turtles if diamondback terrapins are to persist as one of the beauties of the Low Country.

Are people concerned? What can be done to help? Check out the project by Dr. Roger Wood in New Jersey… (Junior zoologists program)

>Download Diamondback Terrapin Fact Sheet

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