Terrapins live either in fresh or slightly salty (brakish) water. They are one type of Chelonian. This means they have four legs and a tough shell made of two parts, which join at the sides. They also have strong, horny mouths and no teeth.
There are two other types of Chelonians – turtles and tortoises. Turtles live in the sea and most tortoises live on land. Chelonians are part of the reptile family.
There are several types of terrapins including the:
- Yellow-bellied Terrapin
- Red-bellied Terrapin
- Diamondback Terrapin
- Florida East Coast Diamondback Terrapin
- Alligator Terrapin
- Mud Terrapin
- Painted Terrapin
- European Pond Terrapin
- Red-eared Terrapin
- African Helmeted Terrapin.
Most types of terrapins live in fresh water, along rivers or in ponds and lakes. The Diamondback lives in brackish (slightly salty) water. There are several types of Diamondbacks that live in marshlands from Massachusetts down to Florida and around to Texas, in the US.
Terrapins mostly catch their food in the water. They eat frog and fish spawn, small fish, mollusks including snails, crabs and clams, and insects. Some terrapins also eat young plant shoots and others eat worms.
Habits and Biology
Terrapins are cold-blooded like their Chelonian cousins the turtle and tortoise. The skeleton of a Chelonian wraps itself around the reptile’s body and has two layers. The outer layer (exoskeleton) is the hard shell. This is mostly greenish-brown, but the shells of the Diamondback and Painted Terrapins are more ornate and colourful than other species.
The inner layer (endoskeleton) is made up of the reptile’s bones, including its ribs, backbone, shoulder blade and hipbones. The outer shell layer is fused (joined) to the inner bony layer.
Although Chelonians don’t have teeth, terrapins and turtles have powerful jaws for crushing crabs and snails and other food. Their rear feet are large and webbed for swimming.
Chelonians don’t have any external part to their ears – so their ears don’t stick out from their heads like human ears. But they do have the same inner ear parts as other animals. Because the outer ear catches sound vibrations and makes them louder, Chelonians don’t hear airborne sounds as loudly as we do. Instead they feel vibrations in their environment – in the water or on land, and their senses of vision and smell are much sharper than ours.
The female Diamondback Terrapin grows twice as big as the male, but has a shorter tail. She nests on beaches like the Sea Turtle and lays 8 – 10 eggs. Diamondbacks can live 25 – 30 years.
Red-eared Terrapins are sometimes kept as pets, but they need special food and a large enclosure with water and space for basking in the sun.
People used to eat Terrapins, but not usually now.