The diamondback terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin) is the only truly estuarine reptile in Virginia. These turtles live in brackish water along the East coast from Cape Cod to the Florida Keys in tidal rivers like the James, marshes, bays, and inlets. Unlike their freshwater relatives, terrapins have a lachrymal salt gland used to excrete excess salt and can live temporarily in both fully marine environments and fresh water if necessary.
The word terrapin comes from the Algonquian word torope and the first recorded use of this English name occurred in 1613. The descriptor ‘diamond back’ comes from the distinctive growth rings visible on the carapace of this species. Terrapins and other turtles were part of the diet of the Virginia Indians, as described by Robert Beverly in 1705, “Their food is fish and flesh of all sorts, and that which participates of both; as the beaver, a small kind of turtle, or terrapins as we call them, and several species of snakes.” Accounts from the early Fort period describing the wildlife and resources of Virginia mention how small the local turtles are, especially compared to the large sea turtles that were eaten in the Caribbean during voyages. Terrapins became part of the diet of Jamestown colonists too, with their remains excavated by Jamestown archaeologists primarily in early features, including the Soldiers Pits and the Kitchen and Cellar.
Terrapins were a readily available food in coastal areas throughout the colonial period and were a significant source of protein in the diet of many enslaved populations during the 18th century, particularly in Maryland. In the 19th century diamondback terrapin became a delicacy, often served as turtle soup in expensive restaurants. Overharvesting significantly reduced the population size and numbers never fully recovered, even after their popularity as a food item declined during the 20th century.