Crossing Terrapins on Delaware’s Route 1

Why did the turtle cross the road? To lay her eggs!

Each year, just as people are heading for the beaches, so are the female Diamondback terrapins. The terrapin lives in the Delaware Inland Bays, but the females lay their eggs in the soft sands of the beach dunes, and mid-May to mid-July is their nesting season.

Dangers to Diamondback Terrapins

Some of these beloved creatures are killed crossing Coastal Highway. Unfortunately, nearly all the terrapins that are killed are adult females. Because they can live for 25–30 years and can continue to reproduce for two decades, every female lost is also a loss of all her potential offspring.

Protecting Diamondback Terrapins

One solution is more sandy beach habitats on the bays. But these natural areas are becoming rarer and rarer as shorelines are hardened with rip rap and stone. As an alternative to bulkheads and riprap, the Delaware Center for the Inland Bays, a nonprofit organization committed to the protection and preservation of the watershed and local marine life, recommends installing a “living shoreline.” This is a term used to describe a number of options that reduce wave energy, trap sediment and filter runoff, while maintaining (or increasing) beach or wetland habitat. Such habitat can protect Diamondback terrapin populations by providing areas for feeding and growth.

What can you do to help the Diamondback Terrapins?

  • Drive slowly on Route 1 (Coastal Highway) between Dewey Beach and Bethany Beach from May through July.
    The females will be crossing the road from the bay side to the ocean side to nest in the Atlantic dunes and lay their eggs. It is a dangerous crossing for these gentle animals.
  • Leave extra distance between you and the car in front of you.
    Cars may stop suddenly or swerve. If you are following too closely you may be unable to react in time to avoid a terrapin.
  • Use extra care at nighttime.
    The terrapins nest round-the-clock and are very hard to see in the dark.
  • If you see a terrapin in the road and want to help, use caution when stopping.
    Pick her up gently on each side of her shell and place her behind the terrapin fencing on the bay side. She won’t bite, but be prepared; she will be frightened and will flail her back legs that have sharp claws.
  • Don’t drop her under any circumstance.
    She and her eggs may be injured. If you are scratched, don’t worry, the terrapin does not transmit disease.

Adult females can live 25–30 years and will reproduce for 20 years and produce 8–36 eggs per year if allowed to live. Please help them cross the road safely. Keep pets and people away from their nests.

Facts About Diamondback Terrapins

  • Diamondback terrapins are non-migratory and spend their entire lives in bays, creeks, salt marshes and coves.
  • Terrapins do not reach maturity until a minimum age of 6, and then produce only 8–36 eggs per year. This low reproductive potential means that female terrapins must reproduce for many years in order for the population to grow or remain stable.
  • The terrapin is considered an aquatic organism, but female terrapins must lay their eggs in open, sandy areas to successfully reproduce. These are among the few times that terrapins exit the water.
  • Although little is known about the behavior of very young terrapins, juveniles and hatchlings spend a lot time on marshy shoreline searching for food such as arthropods, clams, crabs and small crustaceans.
  • Because of alternating areas of sandy beaches and marsh waters, the natural shoreline around the Inland Bays is an excellent terrapin habitat.
  • Habitat loss is a significant threat to the continued existence of the Diamondback terrapin in the Delaware Beaches. Beach nesting areas are universally and permanently being altered through riprapping, bulk heading and other shoreline stabilizing practices.
  • Shoreline stabilization that uses bulkheads or riprap destroys the narrow strip that has suitable sandy material required for nesting as well as high beach elevations necessary for the successful development of terrapin eggs.
  • If terrapins nest in areas that are not sufficiently above the high tide, the developing embryos can drown. Or if they lay their eggs in higher, grassy areas, eggs and hatchlings can become entrapped or killed by grasses.
  • It is estimated that only two percent of terrapin eggs hatch, owing largely to predation by foxes, skunks and raccoons, which dig into nests and consume the eggs and baby terrapins.
  • Surviving hatchlings emerging from the nest are often eaten by gulls and crows or by herons and predatory fish after entering the water.
  • Traditional nesting areas have been severely and permanently altered by waterfront development.
  • Beach habitat is critical to the continued existence of terrapins. Research indicates that more than 95% of breeding females return to a particular area to nest year after year.