- Published: 12 March 2009
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Kathy Herzberg, age 10, of Arden, North Carolina, for her question:
How does a terrapin differ from a turtle?There are many different turtles and some of them are terrapins. For 150 million years, the rest of the animals saw no difference between a turtle and a terrapin and treated them both the same way. Then the Indians of North America discovered something very special about the terrapin type turtle. His meat has a tasty flavor. Later, they shared their terrapin recipes with the pioneers and the pioneers invented even tastier terrapin recipes.
A terrapin is a turtle who is likely to end up in the soup. A large assortment of turtles live in our streams and marshy swamps. They have tough leathery skins and hard shells stuffed with tough, stringy meat. At least most of them do. The terrapins are somewhat different. Their hard shells are stuffed with tender, delicately flavored meat. People who enjoy this food say that terrapin soup is really something to remember. Sometimes they gladly pay as much as $10 for a terrapin turtle merely eight inches wide. As a rule, terrapins intended for soup live on farms and get a diet of special food.
Several slightly different terrapins live in North America. They must live in swampy marshes, though the water may be fresh or slightly brackish. The most famous member of the group is the diamondback terrapin. The shell on his back is brownish olive green and artistically engraved in patterns of points and squares. He and his kinfolk enjoy life in the marshy swamps along, the Gulf Coast, along the shores of Florida and northward as far as New England. At one time, most of the terrapins of North Carolina landed in the soup. Nowadays, the baby terrapins are protected by law ¬and most people who enjoy terrapin soup buy them fully grown from terrapin farms.
The diamondback of North Carolina has four close cousins. There is not much difference between them, though they live in different regions. Most of them enjoy the tidal water of brackish swamps. They feed on a mixed diet of plants, crabs and snails, and other small creatures. Mrs. Terrapin is a little larger than her husband. If she does not land in the soup, she may grow big enough to measure eight inches long. She lays six to twelve round, soft shell eggs and buries them in a muddy bank. The babies are small copies of their parents. It takes them several years to grow big enough to make a bowl of soup. One diamondback cousin prefers the coast of Texas, another enjoys life along the shores of Alabama and Louisiana, another lives around Buzzards Bay in New England.
ode also have a group of larger terrapins, some of them as long as 18 inches. They are more colorful than the diamondbacks. But experts in the soup department say that they are less tasty. The red bellied terrapin of Chesapeake Bay wears bright red designs on both his top and bottom shells. His cousin, the yellow bellied terrapin, enjoys life in several southern states. His upper and lower shells, as you would expect, are ornamented with yellow patterns.
The terrapins and all their turtle cousins have been at home in our world for ages. Their family tree goes back 200 million years. Most other animals had to change with the times. But the turtles have hard shells that protect them like coats of armor. True, they cannot move very fast. But most of them succeed in living a long time except for those tasty terrapins that end up in the soup.