CLEARED FOR TAKEOFF
by Russell Burke and Laura Francoeur
Taxiing to takeoff, a Boeing 747 weighs 875,000 pounds.
Searching for a place to lay her eggs, a female
Diamondback Terrapin weighs 18 ounces.
What happens when the two meet?
I was working on lizards in Rome in June 2009 when my email account started filling up with messages
from my friends that something was happening with the Diamondback Terrapins (Malaclemys terrapin) at
my Jamaica Bay, N.Y., field site. Terrapins had made the local, national and international news when, for the
first time, terrapins swarmed out of the bay, invaded John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City, and blocked
runways for hours. The stories were wild - newscasters loved the cute story of slow-moving turtles bringing the
airport to a halt. News writers scrambled for information about what was going on, and their reports got pretty
ridiculous. There were some incredibly funny animated re-enactments, and apparently terrapin photographs
were in short supply because at least five other species were depicted in articles about the invasion.
But the reality was a pretty serious problem, because terrapins, with a somewhat ambiguous legal status in
New York, were interrupting commerce at one of the busiest airports in the world. Businesses of that size tend
to have their own rules and special concerns about conservation and publicity, and this invasion was a serious
issue for the JFK authorities.
Diamondback Terrapins are one of those unusual turtle species that live in brackish water, not as salty as
ocean water or as salt-free as freshwater. Terrapins live in saltmarshes and mangrove swamps hugging the U.S.
Atlantic and Gulf coasts. They are closely related to Map Turtles (Graptemys), and like Map Turtles they have
extreme sexual dimorphism; females grow up to 11 inches carapace length and can be twice as big as males. They
mostly eat snails, crabs and clams, but we have found lots of plant material in the Jamaica Bay terrapin diets as
welL Terrapins have relativel