By Kevin Rector

Staff writer

You have to be swiped through several heavy doors, turn off an alarm and look for a dark cloth in an obscure corner in University Archives before you’ll find the university’s prized possession – the real Testudo.

A diamondback terrapin native to Maryland, Testudo was stuffed and preserved through taxidermy and mounted on a piece of wood long ago. But now, according to university archivist Anne Turkos, “the terrapin is in a climate-controlled, custom-designed display case, one that was designed especially for this specimen on the advice of a professional conservator.”

Although the diamondback terrapin wasn’t recognized as the official mascot or the state reptile until 1994, Testudo the terrapin has been affiliated with the campus since 1933. And now, after more than 70 years, it remains the most prevalent symbol of the university’s history and pride.

In 1933, students began their hunt to find a suitable university mascot. They no longer wanted to be referred to as “Aggies” or “Old Liners,” and were ready for a mascot of their own.

The idea for a diamondback terrapin mascot came from then-football coach and university vice president Harry Clifton “Curley” Byrd, who was from Crisfield, a Maryland town famous for its terrapins. Since 1921, the student newspaper has been called The Diamondback, and students thought Byrd’s suggestion was logical.

“I don’t recall any of my classmates disputing the decision,” said Marian Bates Daniels, Class of 1933.

As a symbol of their approval, the Class of 1933 donated the original bronze sculpture of Testudo as their class gift. To pay for it, they held their senior prom on the campus instead of at a hotel in Washington, and contributed their profits from the 1932 student yearbook, The Reveille.

The sculpture was made by the Gorham Manufacturing Co. in Rhode Island, which had as its president a former university quarterback, Edmund C. Mayo, Class of 1904. Byrd suggested contacting Mayo when the project was first discussed, and Mayo agreed to create the bronze terrapin at cost. The sculptor, Aristide B. Cianfarani, cast the sculpture after studying the real diamondback terrapin obtained by Byrd from Maryland’s Eastern Shore and taken to Rhode Island by Student Government Association President Ralph I. Williams.

“The real Testudo was five inches tall, with a greenish shell and black spots up and down his neck and legs,” according to a March 29, 2002 article in The Washington Post. With a thick neck, powerful hind legs and a broad shell, Testudo was large for a diamondback.

At the unveiling of the sculpture on June 2, 1933, the live Testudo was charged with removing a cloth that covered its bronze counterpart. Event planners drilled two holes in the small reptile’s shell and attached the cloth to it. Walking away from the statue, the terrapin dragged with it the cloth and revealed the sculpture for the first time. The SGA bought a base for the sculpture, and placed it in front of Ritchie Coliseum on Route 1 with the bronze Testudo perched on top.

Since then, however, the bronze sculpture has been relocated several times – and not only by university officials. Before officials filled it with 700 pounds of cement and attached it to its base with steel rods in 1951, the Testudo sculpture weighed only 300 pounds. Its location on Route 1 made it extremely vulnerable to kidnapping by students from rival schools, and between 1933 and 1951 the sculpture was stolen multiple times.

One such time was in 1947 when students from Johns Hopkins University stole the sculpture before a national lacrosse championship game, took it to Baltimore and buried it for safekeeping.

Around 2 a.m. on game day, about 250 Maryland students arrived at Johns Hopkins and demanded the sculpture be returned. The Hopkins students soaked them with fire hoses, and the resulting chaos brought more than 200 Baltimore police officers to the scene. Eight Maryland students and three Hopkins students were arrested for disorderly conduct.

The sculpture was returned before the game thanks to Hopkins Dean G. Wilson Shaffer, but not before Hopkins students painted a large blue “H” on the shell. After losing the lacrosse game, Maryland students didn’t get revenge until they shaved the Hopkins offenders’ heads at a later date.

The final straw occurred in 1949 when fraternity brothers at the University of Virginia called Byrd and asked him to remove the Testudo sculpture from the lawn of their fraternity house. After it was retrieved, officials stashed the sculpture in a campus carpentry shed until 1951, when George O. Weber, director of Physical Plant at College Park and class president of the class of 1933, suggested that it be filled with cement and put back on display.

In 1965, students decided to put Testudo in front of McKeldin Library so it could have a central location far enough from Route 1. Since then, students have taken to rubbing the sculpture’s nose for good luck and leaving it offerings of beer, food and other items during finals week.

And while students look to Testudo for luck in academics, they also look to him for leadership in athletics. Beginning in the 1980s, Testudo took form as the furry mascot sports fans know and love. Present at every big game, Testudo pumps his fists as audience members chant his name and snap pictures.

In 2001, fans and officials first began chanting “Fear the Turtle,” a slogan that belies the diminutive nature of the small diamondback snapping turtle and instead points to the ever-increasing reputation of Maryland athletics as being top-notch and tough. To increase the intimidation, university officials had Testudo shed its image as a rangy reptile and bulked it up. And with its new, fiercer image, Testudo ranks as one of the top mascots in the country. In 2004, it was named to the “Capital One All-America Mascot Team,” an honor granted to 12 university mascots nationwide based on interaction with fans, sportsmanship and community service.

“In the beginning, no one feared the turtle,” began the 2002 article in The Washington Post. “Testudo the Terrapin was a wuss: shy and retiring, dopey and avuncular. But that was before the University of Maryland transformed him into a hulking superhero – an Arnold Schwarzenegger among reptiles.”

Contact reporter Kevin Rector at