There was a little turtle.
He lived in a box.
He swam in a puddle.
He climbed on the rocks.
This little poem by early 20th century American poet Vachel Lindsay is describing the most common turtle that we usually see around here, the Eastern Box Turtle, Terrapene carolina. The reason we see this turtle more than most others is because it lives on land, like us, rather than in the water.
Everyone likes box turtles. They are small, cute, brightly colored, and docile. Pretty much the exact opposite of the large, aggressive, hissing, mud and algae covered, female snapping turtles that we also see on land about this time of year when they travel long distances to lay eggs. The box turtle is named because its hinged plastron (bottom shell) can close up tight to protect the tender parts of the turtle from predators. It is the only turtle that can close up completely.
About two weeks ago I was hiking in the woods on one of our local trails and found two different box turtles about a half mile apart. Both were males. How could I tell? There are several things to look for to distinguish male box turtles from females. Males usually have bright, fire engine red, eyes. Females usually have light orange or brown eyes. The plastron of the males is usually concave while that of females is usually flat. There are a few other things to look for but those are the easiest to distinguish. Next time you find a box turtle, see if you can determine its sex. You can also get a rough approximation of a box turtle’s age by counting the rings on one of the scutes (plates) on the turtle’s carapace (top shell). The turtle in the photo appears to be approximately 35 years old.
An adult box turtle’s greatest danger is cars. You will most often see them crossing a road, especially after a rain when they are most active. Closing up in a shell is no protection from cars. A few years ago I saw a box turtle crossing Catoosa Blvd., but I had to wait for some cars to pass before I could go out on the road to move the turtle to the other side. The first two cars straddled the turtle nicely, but the third car didn’t see the turtle and smashed it flat, ten feet in front of me. You should always help box turtles across a road by placing them on the side they were heading for, because they have an excellent sense of where they are going and, if you place them on the wrong side, they will try to cross the road again after you leave.
One smashed turtle might not seem like a big loss, but for the species, it can be a big deal. Although box turtles may live 50 years or longer, they don’t reach sexual maturity until 7-10 years old. Then, they only lay three to six eggs per year. In a lifetime, a female box turtle may lay 200 eggs or more, but less than about 2-3 percent of the eggs will become adult turtles. That is because raccoons, skunks, snakes, foxes and even fire ants, eat the eggs and the young when they find them. Before cars, 2-3 percent sustained box turtle populations just about right. But every smashed adult box turtle changes the species survival equation dramatically.
Baby box turtles are rarely seen because they live under the leaf litter eating mostly worms, slugs and insects. Mature turtles seem to like more fruits and vegetables, such as blackberries, wild strawberries and mushrooms, even poisonous ones. The poisonous mushrooms don’t affect the turtles, but humans have become seriously ill from eating box turtles who have recently dined on dangerous mushrooms. Make sure your turtle soup is snapping turtle, not box turtle.
Turtles, like all reptiles, are ectotherms (cold blooded). They hibernate in the winter in loose soil or under old tree stumps.
By the way, turtles cannot come out of their shells. The shell is actually bone covered in keratin and a turtle’s ribs and backbone are part of the top shell.
Eastern box turtles have a small home range of only about two acres. If you see a box turtle in your yard, it isn’t a transient passing through; it is probably your lifelong neighbor. One person called me last year that found box turtle eggs buried in a small dirt-covered depression in their yard. If you are lucky enough to find a nest in your yard, help your turtle neighbor out by not disturbing the eggs. You might even place a fence around the nest to protect the eggs until they hatch, and hopefully you can help save some of our most beautiful little turtles that live in a box.
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Comments, questions or suggestions for future nature articles are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.
There was a little turtle.
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