- The Washington Times - Friday, June 21, 2002

GRASONVILLE, Md. "Fear the Turtle" was a mantra heard nationwide this year as the University of Maryland men's basketball team marched to the national championship. But real terrapins may have more reason to fear than be feared.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening announced measures yesterday to protect the decidedly not intimidating state reptile from habitat destruction and other threats. Afterward, Mr. Glendening joined schoolchildren at the Horsehead Wetlands Sanctuary to release about two dozen diamondback terrapins raised in classrooms and homes.

"We not only want people to fear the turtle, but, working together, we want terrapins to not fear that Marylanders are going to destroy their home," Mr. Glendening said, standing along an Eastern Shore beach where state environmentalists had identified 35 terrapin nests.

Accurate Information about diamondback terrapins can be hard to find, but biologists agree that the population across the Chesapeake Bay likely has been declining as a result of waterfront development and other human influences, such as boat propeller blades.

One of the initiatives Mr. Glendening announced yesterday was a population and habitat assessment.

Other measures include establishing a voluntary network of terrapin-nesting sanctuaries on private lands, encouraging the use of crab pots that have turtle-excluding devices and increasing reviews of environmental permits for beach habitats that could be terrapin-nesting grounds.

Also, Mr. Glendening announced that 15 percent of the royalties from the sales of T-shirts, hats, mugs and other merchandise bearing the university's "Fear the Turtle" slogan will go toward terrapin conservation.

Terrapins are not just the state reptile and the university's mascot. They also play a vital role in the ecosystem, eating everything from mussels and clams to carrion and keeping the water clean, said Kevin Smith, of the Department of Natural Resource's watershed restoration division.

"They're the garbage men of the Bay," he said.

The terrapin release yesterday was the culmination of a program pairing residents and schools with the DNR.

When they first hatch, the walnut-sized terrapins weigh just a few ounces and their shells have not hardened.

That makes them particularly vulnerable to predators, including raccoons, foxes and crows on land as well as seabirds and large fish.

"They're like potato chips to sea gulls when they're that small," said Molly Darr, 15, of Lovettsville, Va.

Molly and her friend Kelsey Threatt, 15, raised a few terrapins in a 10-gallon tank. After about nine months, the terrapins grew to about the size of a fist large enough to fend off many predators.

DNR workers tag a terrapin by drilling a hole in the edge of the shell, which like a fingernail does not have nerve endings.

When Molly and Kelsey put the reptiles on the sand, inches from water's edge, the animals didn't hesitate, crawling headfirst into the gentle waves.

After a few moments, the terrapins' heads popped up for air, like little black corks. Soon, they disappeared into the deeper water of Prospect Bay.

Kelsey said she was sad to see her little terrapins go.

"But they'll be much happier out there than in our turtle tanks," she said.

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