By Laura & Hal Mahan
Early one morning two years ago, we were strolling our densely shaded back yard with the dog before heading off to work. Nellie’s sensitive nose alerted her to an “intruder” in her space and she began some enthusiastic barking. It was still not obvious what had excited her attention. Walking closer, Laura spotted it. There was the well camouflaged shell of a box turtle, North Carolina’s state reptile, protecting itself from our dog by closing its shell up tight like a box.
How exciting to have a box turtle wandering our back yard! This made us want to know more about this common species of reptile and how it lives. Not wanting to disturb the turtle, we quickly ushered Nellie back into the house.
As good naturalists when we observe something new, we begin to ask questions. What does this box turtle eat? How long might this turtle live? How far does it roam? Will it lay eggs nearby? How does it survive the winter? Do box turtles face any dangers?
It is thought that box turtles live 25 to 30 years in the wild, but they have been known to live much longer. You can estimate their age by counting the growth rings on the scutes, or sections of their shell. Their diet is varied and includes everything from plants and berries to mushrooms, insects, snails, slugs and dead animals.
Female box turtles lay eggs in a shallow nest that they dig in loose soil with their hind legs. Typically, they only lay from one to seven eggs, and it is at this stage of their life cycle that they are the most vulnerable as the eggs can be consumed by raccoons, skunks or other predators. The turtle hatchlings are only about an inch long.
Box turtles spend most of their lives on land and not in the water. Their numbers are declining due to habitat loss, and they are also particularly vulnerable to being hit by cars when they try to cross roads. Since these turtles have such a long life span, it is likely that new roads and neighborhood streets have appeared in the turtle’s home range. If you see one on a road and it is safe to do so, gently pick up the turtle and place it on the other side of the road in the direction that it was headed. It might be trying to reach a favorite feeding area. Its homing instinct will cause it to spend its entire long life in one small territory.
We are pleased to report that the box turtle we spotted two years ago is alive and well in our back yard and we have been spotting her quite regularly. We also have seen a male box turtle in the same small area. We know it’s the same two turtles by comparing the patterns on their shells from our earlier photos. We’ll report back if we observe any baby box turtles. Wouldn’t that be exciting? It’s so fun to know that our backyard here in Asheville can provide the proper habitat for the state reptile of North Carolina.
For further reading:
Mossy by Jan Brett. A wonderful children’s book with exquisite artwork
Turtles of NC, SC, and Georgia. A handy waterproof folding guide by Quick Reference Publishing
Laura and Hal Mahan are owners of The Compleat Naturalist, located at 2 Brook Street in the Historic Biltmore Village. To learn more, visit CompleatNaturalist.com or call 828.274.5430.