By Laura & Hal Mahan
“…Whereas, the turtle, which at a superficial glance appears to be a mundane and uninteresting creature, is actually a most fascinating creature, ranging from species well adapted to modern conditions to species which have existed virtually unchanged since prehistoric times…”
— From the NC General Assembly bill adopting the eastern box turtle as the state’s official reptile, March 1979.
Early one morning we were strolling our densely shaded back yard with our 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 a well-camouflaged box turtle, 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 and mushrooms to 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 may be trying to reach a favorite feeding area. Its homing instinct will cause it to spend its entire long life in one small territory.
When we checked the yard again for the box turtle, it was nowhere to be found. Now we will be keeping a careful watch, and we will continue to try to learn the answers to our many questions about nature!
If you’d like to help scientists gather data about box turtles, consider participating in the Neighborhood Box Turtle Watch being conducted by the NC State Museum of Natural Sciences. Visit the Citizen Science section of their website for further information.
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.