Box turtles are our only terrestrial turtle. They have a domed shell that is hinged at the bottom, allowing them to close their shell tightly to escape predators. They are a species that has remained relatively unchanged for more than 200 million years. With a lifespan that can exceed 120 years in the wild, they are the longest-lived vertebrates in North America. Their long lives are spent in a home range that is about the size of a football field. They eat snails, insects, berries, mushrooms, worms, roots, fish, slugs and flowers. Curiously, they do not eat green leaves. Box turtles are diurnal, being most active in the morning and after rainfall.
Mating season begins in the spring and continues throughout the summer to October. A female may lay fertile eggs for up to four years after one successful mating. Nests are dug in sandy, loamy soil with the female laying 3 to 5 eggs. Incubation normally lasts three months but varies with soil temperature and moisture. Weather and predators destroy almost all of their eggs. When eggs do hatch, babies have a slim chance of survival as predators take almost all of the young. A young female who survives to reproductive maturity at around age 15, can lay a few hundred eggs in her long lifetime. From that lifetime of egg production, only a handful of hatchlings will survive to adulthood to replace aged parents and sustain local populations.
Box turtles have strong homing instincts or “site fidelity,” meaning they will live their long lives in a small parcel of woods near where they were hatched. For this reason it is never a good idea to relocate box turtles, as a displaced turtle can spend years fruitlessly searching for its lost home. When box turtles are encountered crossing a road, in danger of being crushed by that huge predator the automobile, give a turtle a break and take it off to the side of the road in the direction it was headed. Never turn a turtle around and place it back where it came from, as it will just turn around again and head back in the direction it was originally headed. They know where they want to go.
The pet trade is also decimating turtle populations. According to the Humane Society, nearly 2 million American households have at least one pet turtle. At least 6 million American turtles are exported annually, most to Europe and Asia. Of those, more than 26,000 wild-caught box turtles are exported with thousands more sold in the U.S. Collectors take the large sexually mature adults, leaving wild populations depleted of breeders. Huge numbers of turtles die in transport. Those that do survive long enough to be purchased usually do not live long because many buyers do not know how to provide for them with proper diet and habitat.
A walk through the woods, stumbling onto a box turtle, and taking it home as a pet seems innocent enough. However, it is against state law to buy or catch turtles as pets. It is easy to see why. In one study 33 marked turtles began disappearing immediately after the public was invited into a 2,471-acre reservoir watershed. Eight years later only 14 of the turtles remained. Two years after that they were all gone. Illegal collecting threatens the species very existence.
Box turtles are vulnerable. This ancient species is way too cool and interesting for us to allow it to disappear from our woodlands. You can help…
- If you see a turtle in the wild, leave it be. Stop, look, and help it off the trail so it is not seen and captured by someone less responsible.
- If you see a turtle trying to cross a road, stop and help. Many thousands of turtles are killed each year on our roadways. Always take it to the side of the road it was heading.
- Do not buy turtles as pets. Purchasing wild animals only promotes the illegal trade of native and non-native wildlife species.
- If you find an injured turtle, take it to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.
- If you absolutely must have a turtle, contact a local rehabilitator and see about adopting one that cannot be re-released into the wild. Locally, contact www.arrowheadreptilerescue.org