The terrapin is a fascinating creature that is usually overlooked, simply because people seem to prefer its cousins, the turtle and tortoise. What many don’t know is that, just like its cousins, it is one of the oldest living creatures on the planet and can be traced back 180 million years to when dinosaurs roamed the earth. Who would have thought such an unassuming creature could survive what even the dinosaur could not?
In South Africa we have one species of terrapin, although it is found in many places all around world. The serrated hinged terrapin is the largest hinged terrapin which earned its name from the hinge in its shell which it is able to close after retracting its head for protection. It is predominantly found in the Eastern regions of Africa. Although it can be found on land and in water, it tends to stick close to water sources – usually brackish or salty water and river estuaries. It is often found languishing in the mud on the banks of rivers, or taking a nap on the back of a hippopotamus.
For those interested in anatomy: the carapace (hard upper shell) and bridge are uniform black in colour. The plastron (the leathery under-belly) is yellow-centred, with a sharply defined black, angular pattern around the edge. The wrinkly skin of the neck and limbs is pale olive-grey. As a defence mechanism, this wily creature will use the many musk glands on its soft skin to release a foul smelling substance that wards off predators. Think of it as the amphibious version of the skunk.
The female lays 7 – 25 eggs, and much like turtles, will lay these eggs close to a water source. Sadly many of the hatchlings will be eaten by predators just after hatching, or even before.
Did you know the terrapin is a carnivore? It feeds on a variety of creatures, including snails, molluscs, insects, frogs, and fish. It will also consume carrion (dead flesh of an animal) if available, and has been known to eat ticks and parasites off of wallowing water buffalo.
It is a ferocious little creature with incredibly sharp claws and a powerful snapping jaw. Although it does not have teeth, it can easily take a finger off with a single chomp. It would rather hide in its shell, but if the situation calls for it, it can be a very effective fighter indeed.
We hope you have seen the terrapin in a new light, and that on your next visit to the wild you will be on the look-out for this living legend in your search for Camp Jabulani wildlife.