What’s in a name?’ said the Bard — possibly the same could be said about the slow, plodding, long-living and wise members of the animal kingdom. They may bear different names — turtle, tortoise, terrapin — but they are united in belonging to the same class (reptiles) and order (testudines) and are distinctly alike in their appearance. So, get ready to learn more about terrapins in this article.
Terrapins spend a lot of time both on land and water. They favour small ponds and lakes. Most terrapins are herbivorous and tend to come to land at night to forage. They possess scent glands. The young ones are light brown in colour and the adults a darker brown or black. Their jaws are toothless, their upper dorsal bony shell is known as carapace and lower shell, plastron.
In our backyard in Chennai, there’s a lone pond terrapin that has for six years now made its home in the rain pool. After a heavy spell of rain the terrapin, which generally remains concealed, will peep from the water surface. The clear water makes it possible for us to see it swimming under water looking for food among the water plants, even coming close to the banks.
When the sun shines, it climbs on to a piece of wood in the middle of the rain pool and basks for hours along with water snakes to regulate its body temperature, raising its head, stretching its neck and webbed limbs. When the little grebe birds fly close to the log, I see the terrapin hurriedly jump into the water fearing the bird’s powerful bill. Even low flying airplanes in the vicinity make the terrapin rush into the water. The water in the rain pool recedes, leading to people and animals thronging the place. The terrapin vanishes and will not be seen until the next monsoon.
There was a well at my grandma’s house in which used to reside a terrapin. Other wells might have dried up, but this well seemed to always have water. Apparently, the terrapin had found its way from the paddy fields into the well. Often as a child I would wait for the sun to illuminate the almost 20-foot deep well. It was a magical sight when it happened! We could then see the terrapin swimming in fine rhythm in the aquatic company of small and large fish, every now and then raising itself to the surface to breathe.
By ingeniously lowering a large bamboo basket into the well, we managed to pull the terrapin out. It had inquisitive eyes and swam with its limbs moving independent of each other. Our guest stayed for more than 10 years in the well.
Villagers believe terrapins help to keep wells clean as they eat the green algae, weeds, insects and worms. Many water wells in those days had up to three terrapins in them.
With the arrival of the motor pump, most of the well openings were closed with concrete. The terrapin population seems to be dwindling even in the open fields now.
Terrapins have many enemies — they are hunted by humans for their meat and preyed upon by crocodiles, otters, monitor lizards, crabs and large fish as well as birds like pelicans, snake eagles and kingfishers.
Name: Indian black turtle, Common Indian Pond terrapin (Melanochelys trijuga)
Size: 40 cm
Weight: 10-25 kg
No of eggs: Six, white in colour and elliptical in size
Food: Water plants, weeds, insects and fish
Habitat: Fresh water lakes, marshes and ponds
Location: South India