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This spring, Maryland outlawed the trapping of diamondback terrapins. The state's iconic reptile was threatened in part by a growing market in China for Chesapeake turtle soup. The leader of the save-the-turtle movement - the liberator of the terrapins - was Willem Roosenburg.

Roosenburg is a biologist and terrapin scholar at Ohio University. But he grew up in Southern Maryland. And back when he was a kid, his mind was shaped in the muck of the Patuxent River behind his home. He was fascinated by marine life in part because his father studied oysters at the Chesapeake Biological Lab.

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One lazy summer morning when Willem was about 12, he and a friend were fishing on a shallow, sandy flat. The river was calm and glassy, the air hazy. In the stultifying heat they began to see things - odd little leaves that bobbed to the surface all around their rowboat. Mystified, they rowed toward one. But as soon as they got close, it disappeared. So they paddled toward another, but it also slipped into the murk. They tried again and again, but they couldn't get close enough to make out what the baffling objects were. Finally, one popped up right beside their boat. They saw pinpoint nostrils, a beak curved into a sly smile - and realized it was the head of a swimming turtle. They had drifted into a colony of hundreds of rare and elusive diamondback terrapins.

Something about that moment of discovery changed Willem. It was perhaps the wonder of seeing for the first time creatures that had been around him for years - but which he had never noticed, because he wasn't paying attention.

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Years later, when he was studying for a Ph.D. in ecology at the University of Pennsylvania, he decided to devote himself to finding out more about the reptiles. So he returned to the Patuxent River and spent two decades watching, trapping, tagging, measuring and releasing diamondbacks. He learned that they protect wetlands, by eating periwinkles and keeping the numbers of snails in check so they don't devour too much marsh grass. He discovered that slight temperature variations in the spring -- a few degrees warmer or cooler as the turtles develop - alters their sex, making them all male or all female.

He had seen vast fleets of terrapins as a child. But as an adult he realized their numbers were suddenly and steeply declining. From 1996 through last year, he documented a 75 percent drop in females in the Patuxent River - a trend that echoed anecdotal reports from elsewhere in the bay. Roosenburg learned that watermen were increasingly trapping terrapins for a growing market in Asia, where consumers had eaten almost all of their native turtles.

Nobody knows how many terrapin are left in the Chesapeake Bay. But the number reported caught in Maryland topped 10,000 last year, a more than 20 fold increase from the year before. The trapping frenzy seemed like an ominous replay of the Victorian era, when a craze for turtle soup nearly drove the species to extinction.

On top of the soup menace, there were also other problems hounding the diamondbacks. The sandy beaches they need for nesting are disappearing, as developers heap boulders along the water to protect new homes. Crab traps also snag many terrapins. And then there are the raccoons. As subdivisions have sprawled into rural areas, the number of trash cans has multiplied - and with the trash has come an explosion of raccoons with a taste for tender terrapin eggs.

Roosenburg was determined to do something to save the turtles. So he worked with other conservationists to form an advocacy group, backed by turtle lobbyists and reptilian lawyers, and supported by the National Aquarium in Baltimore. During hearings in Annapolis, Roosenburg used his decades of research data to convince lawmakers to outlaw trapping.

Watermen aren't the only threat to the terrapins. But the increase in trapping was a growing threat to the slow-reproducing species, and perhaps the easiest to control.

Now, if the terrapins are to survive, the save-the-turtle movement may have to evolve into a save-the-beach movement. That may sound like a popular goal. But preserving sandy areas will require confronting developers and waterfront homeowners, who have more political clout than watermen.

It may take decades before anyone knows if Roosenburg saved the state mascot. But he's hopeful. Perhaps his great-granddaughter will be fishing on the Patuxent River on a lazy summer morning someday, when she, too, will be surrounded by hundreds of those mysterious, disappearing faces.

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