What Is a Terrapin?

Although the University of Maryland's basketball team missed out on the NCAA Tournament in 2011, they've been a perennial contender in years past. The team is known for its unusual mascot, the terrapin. People often wonder: What is a terrapin and how did it come to be this institution's mascot?

By Jeff Calareso

Maryland Terrapin Turtle

A Turtle with an Unusual Name

A terrapin, or diamondback terrapin, is a turtle unique to the eastern and southern United States. The name comes from the Algonquian word 'torope' and was used by early Europeans to identify the turtle that prefers brackish swamps to freshwater or ocean water. Terrapins are common in Maryland and Delaware and throughout the Chesapeake Bay region.

Prior to becoming the namesake for the University of Maryland, the terrapin was eaten as an easily accessible protein by Native Americans and later by European colonists. The original method of eating terrapins was to roast them whole over a fire. During the time of slavery, terrapins were excessively fed to slaves to the point of protest.

Later, terrapins were considered a delicacy. They were served in a stew made with cream and sherry. By the 1920s, terrapins were so widely eaten that they were nearly driven to extinction. They've bounced back since then and earned occasional notoriety. For example, in 2009, nearly 100 terrapins took over a runway at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City, causing major flight delays.

Terrapin Crossing

Fear the Turtle

Originally, the University of Maryland's nickname was the Old Liners, which came from Maryland's nickname, 'The Old Line State.' In the 1930s, Maryland football coach Dr. Harry C. Byrd chose the terrapin in response to the school newspaper's request for an official mascot. Byrd reportedly had more than a few run-ins with terrapins as a child in the area. While a turtle may seem an odd choice as a mascot, the terrapin is the state reptile of Maryland.

Maryland's terrapin mascot is an anthropomorphic turtle nicknamed Testudo. The origins of that nickname are murky, but it likely comes from testudines, the scientific classification for turtles. The university has marketed 'Fear the Turtle' as a slogan for many years. Since 2002, some of the proceeds from merchandise bearing the terrapin and 'Fear the Turtle' slogan have gone to research and protection efforts at the Department of Natural Resources. This work is designed to ensure that terrapins are around to fear for many years to come.

Despite the success of teams like the Maryland Terrapins, some people question if college sports programs are financially unsustainable.

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