Eastern Box Turtle – USA

Eastern Box Turtle – USA

Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina) radio telemetry movement and habitat use study with resident and relocated turtles

Due to the increase in residential, commercial and road development box turtles may be forced to wander out of their ever shrinking isolated habitats into lands used by humans

The Telenax transmitter has performed wonderfully despite extreme temperature variations and several heavy rains.  I highly recommend Telenax as a supplier of high quality radio transmitters.

These woodland turtles are common from southern Maine to Georgia and west to the Mississippi river. They are terrestrial but during hot dry weather they can often be found cooling off in the shallows of streams, ponds or puddles. Sometimes they may soak in mud or water for days at a time with just their eyes and nose sticking above the surface. When frightened, the box turtle will pull its head and legs and tail in and “box” itself up into its shell. The lower shell, or plastron, is hinged, so that the front and rear parts can be brought up against the inner surface of the domelike upper shell, or carapace, and closed tight thus keeping out the danger. Often box turtles are found with scratch or chew marks on its shell where an unsuccessful predator tried to get in.

The box turtle’s coloration is extremely variable. The basic color of the carapace may be light brown to black, but both the carapace and the skin are often marked brightly with beautiful oranges and yellows that blend in very well with the forest floor providing the turtle with good camouflage. Male Box turtles will almost always have more flattened shell and a distinct flare to the trailing edge of their carapace. Females typically have a more highly domed shell with little or no flare on the rear edge of the carapace. The eyes of the male are usually red to orange and the females are often brown to orange. Male box turtles have more sharply curved claws on their back feet than females which they use for holding onto the females shell during mating. Female box turtles rear claws are more shovel-like to help them dig their nest chambers. Male box turtles also have longer, thicker tails than females and a distinct inward curving plastron. Adult box turtles lengths range from 4.5 to 6 inches in carapace length in mature turtles.

Box turtles feed on insects, slugs, snails, fruit, worms, berries, carrion and vegetation, as well as on mushrooms known to be poisonous to humans (there are historical accounts of people dying after eating Box turtle meat tainted with mushroom toxins.) They are most often active morning and afternoon and will spend the hottest part of the day under rotting logs, dead leaves and other cover on the forest floor. In the late summer, they can be found in berry patches eating the berries that have fallen or are close to the ground.

Life History

Box turtles grow slowly and usually reach sexual maturity at between 7 and 10 years old when they are about 5 to 6 inches in length. After mating, female Box turtles can retain sperm for several years, continuing to produce fertilized eggs, without any contact with a male turtle. Once mature, a female box turtle will lay around up to 6 eggs in the spring to early summer in a shallowly dug nest that she digs and then covers entirely with her back feet. The female turtle then leaves the nest and never looks back. She does not guard the eggs and she does not worry about them. Her job is done until the next nesting time. The eggs incubate in the ground until hatching a couple of months later. As with many reptiles, eggs that incubate at warmer temperatures hatch as females and the cooler become males. Eggs that aren’t eaten by predators such as raccoons, foxes, and skunks will usually hatch in the late summer to early fall or may hibernate in the nest until the next spring. When a baby Box turtle first hatches from its egg it is a tiny 1 ¼ inches long—only a little smaller than the tiny Box turtle in the photo below.

Because they are very small baby box turtles are very hard to find so we don’t know much about them. If you ever find a box turtle smaller than 3 inches in length then you are very lucky. These tiny little turtles spend most of their time hidden in leaf litter and brush on the forest floor feeding mostly on tiny insects, worms and other invertebrates.

The box turtle is a very long lived animal that lives up to 30+ years old with many living over 50 years! There are even some reports of box turtles living over 100 years!

If you find a Box turtle in the forest—PLEASE leave it there. Please do not take it to a pond, creek or river or home as a pet.

The Future of the Box Turtle?

Adult box turtles still seem to be fairly common but there is good reason for us to be concerned about their future. Since Box turtles are slow to mature, have few offspring and are slow movers they are particularly vulnerable to harm from the world of Humankind. The main problems faced by the Box turtle are habitat loss, destruction and fragmentation caused by the activities of humans.

Turtles that survive humankind’s onslaught of development and growth often die while trying to cross roads in search of mates, food, water or a new home. Due to the increase in residential, commercial and road development box turtles may be forced to wander out of their ever shrinking isolated habitats into lands used by humans. Here they are at a far greater risk from death directly related to the activities of humans such as being hit by cars, mowers, tractors and other farm equipment. Many box turtles die in backyard fishponds that don’t have escape ramps or in leaf piles that are raked up and later burned without being checked for sheltering wildlife.

This box turtle was probably badly burned in a fire or gnawed by a canid.

Another problem the Box turtle faces is the pet trade. Taking just one Box turtle from the wild to be sold or used as a pet can be decimating to local populations. Although a female Box turtle will lay hundreds of eggs over her long lifespan—less than a handful these will survive to be a reproducing adult turtle! In a healthy habitat this small number of offspring will survive to replace their aging parents and the population will stay stable. However, if the adults are removed either by being taken as pets or killed due to human activities, the number of breeding adults will drop and the entire population will soon suffer.

Box turtles also possess a strong homing instinct that causes them to want to be near their “home” where they were born. Because of this fact a Box turtle that has been moved far from its home may instinctively try to walk home. This will put it in great danger as it crosses roads, rivers and fields, encounters predators, diseases and other unknown dangers. If you have a pet box turtle that you found and decide to release it back into the “wild” please take it back to the exact spot where you found it. If this is not possible then please donate it to a nature center, a wildlife park or zoo. It is because of all of these reasons that if you are looking for a pet turtle that you should only choose a captive-raised animal.

If you find a Box turtle crossing a road, move it to the side of the road that its head is pointing toward–because it really does know where it is going. If the area where you find the turtle has obviously been destroyed by construction and development then its habitat is probably lost. You will need to take the turtle to a nature center or Wildlife Park or it will most likely not survive.

Project Introduction

Earthshine Mountain Lodge sits atop Richland Ridge and is surrounded by 83 acres of mountain land covered in a mixed hardwood forest.  There are over 35 acres of maintained fields along the crest of the ridge and an area of regenerating old fields that was once a horse pasture on the south side of the ridge.  Elevations range from around 2680 feet along Richland Creek on the north side of the property to 3200 feet at the highest point.  The northern edge of the property borders the Pisgah National Forest and is bisected by only one private gravel road.

During the spring of 2007, I discovered several adult Eastern Box Turtles (Terrapene carolina carolina), one juvenile and one hatchling on the southeast side of the property and began to wonder about the status and distribution of the resident box turtle population at Earthshine.  I then invited John Rucker to come to Earthshine and locate turtles with his “turtle dogs.”  John’s dogs have the remarkable ability to find and retrieve box turtles!  Using his dogs, John discovered an area of the property that provides excellent box turtle habitat and supports what I believe to be a healthy population of box turtles.  Over the course of 8 hours John, myself and Alan Cameron captured, marked and released 11 box turtles.  All of these were adult turtles over 20 years of age.  These turtles will continue to be monitored if/when they are recaptured and any others that I find on the property will be marked, weighed, measured and photo-tagged in order to form a database of the Eastern Box Turtle at Earthshine.

In the mid-summer of 2007, I was given a rehabilitated male box turtle that had lived in captivity for over a year.  This turtle had been hit by a lawnmower or automobile and suffered major damage to its carapace.  The injury had healed and the turtle was healthy but the rehabilitator did not know where the turtle had originated other than it had probably come from Buncombe County.  I saw a great opportunity to study the movements of a relocated turtle in an environment that is already known to support a healthy population of box turtles.  After holding the turtle in quarantine for several weeks and finding it healthy, I attached a Telenax model TXB-125G radio transmitter to the turtle’s carapace and released it in the area of the highest concentration of box turtles at Earthshine.  The turtle has been on his own now for over one month.  It has followed a fairly circular pattern, has gained weight and seems to be doing well.  The Telenax transmitter has performed wonderfully despite extreme temperature variations and several heavy rains over the last 40 days.  I highly recommend Telenax as a supplier of high quality radio transmitters.

Education Opportunities

A great benefit of this study is environmental education.  Earthshine Mountain Lodge is an outdoor education facility as well as a family vacation getaway and corporate retreat.  Environmental education is a large part of our curriculum and we strive to continually improve our programming to better teach our youth—and adults—about the wonders of the natural world around us.  The Eastern Box Turtle Program at Earthshine allows visitors to learn about the box turtle in a way that they will never forget.  Our rehabilitation pen has several non-releasable resident turtles that are used as education animals as well as a few animals that are recovering from injuries and will eventually be released at their origin locations.  These animals serve to educate the guests on the plight of the box turtle through educational programs and guided hikes and informative trail signs.  Future plans include occasional guided “turtle tracking” hikes for small numbers of lodge guests.  On these hikes the guests will be able to assist in tracking the study animals, learn about the research we are conducting and why box turtle conservation (and habitat conservation) is so important.  More future plans include community outreach at local schools, environmental education seminars and workshops, a website (currently in development) and possible media involvement in the form of newspaper articles and spots on local TV newscasts.

The Eastern Box Turtle program at Earthshine will provide exceptional experiential learning of wildlife conservation, education and management field techniques for countless youth as well as adults.

Impact of Project

Results of this study will provide the research community and others interested in box turtle life history with detailed information on the habitat use and movements of resident and relocated Eastern Box Turtles above 2500 feet in western North Carolina.  This information would greatly benefit those interested in conserving box turtles and their habitats on their lands—public and private.

It will also provide data to Earthshine Mountain Lodge and similar institutions who wish to manage and conserve their populations of resident box turtles.

This article submitted by:

Steve O’Neil

Naturalist/Environmental Educator

Earthshine Mountain Lodge

Lake Toxaway, NC USA

TELENAX is pleased to thank Steve O´Neil and his team for sharing this article with us.

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