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Turtle Wax and Wane

Posted 3/28/2001

On the one hand, the Terrapins are riding high. After slaughtering Stanford, they face an exciting future. On the other hand, terrapins may be sinking fast. After being mercilessly slaughtered for more than a century, their future is cloudy at best.

The thriving Terrapins are, of course, the University of Maryland men's basketball team, bound for its very first Final Four appearance on March 31. The other terrapins are, well, the real deal: Malaclemys terrapin, the aquatic turtle that has been the College Park campus' mascot since 1933, the Maryland state reptile since 1994, and a resident of the Chesapeake Bay since, well, just about forever.

Marguerite Whilden, conservation and stewardship specialist with the Maryland Fisheries Services, hopes the basketball Terps' high-profile success can be used to help their cold-blooded namesake. She's one of the founders of the turtle education and outreach program Terrapin Station, which aims to increase public awareness of the bay's other shell-wearing inhabitant. She'd like to see her terrapins win $250,000 from Gov. Parris Glendening's budget--state money that could be used to fund the first comprehensive study of the Chesapeake's terrapin population. "We really don't know how they're doing," Whilden tells the Nose. "We know they are still being harvested commercially."

Terrapin stew, once the state's signature dish, has largely fallen out of favor locally, but the terrapin has won eager new eaters in the Asian community. "I know for a fact that live terrapins are for sale in ethnic markets in San Francisco," Whilden says. "I've heard that there's a restaurant in Philly where you pick out your own live terrapin."

Terrapins that avoid the stew pot face other obstacles, including pollution and shoreline development that's wiping out their nesting grounds. Having survived the Ice Age, they might ultimately be done in by McMansions and lawn mowers (which wreak havoc on nest-hunting females by, well, running them over). But without a population-assessment study, Whilden asserts, no one can know for sure which way the local turtle community is heading.

Glendening spokesperson Raquel Guillory told the Nose that the governor (an erstwhile UM professor, don't forget) is "definitely a friend to turtles" and would likely send some money their way in a future supplemental budget. And if the winning Terps have helped shed light on Whilden's wild ones, she'd like to return the favor. She wrote Coach Gary Williams last year, offering to bring her terrapins to his Terrapins' games. (Although she dismisses the mascot's image as "herpetologically incorrect. . . . [It] looks like a box turtle.")

"I haven't heard anything yet, but I've got turtles standing by," Whilden says. "I'll bring them no charge. Just get me a courtside seat, and I'll guarantee you the team will be the champions. My turtles aren't shy and want to root on the Maryland Terrapins, and turtle karma is unbeatable." n

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