Vol. 14 Issue 1, Spring 2009
By Emily Bzdyk
Late in the summer, as I drive the roads of Loudoun County, my eyes become especially keen to detect a small rounded reptilian creature. If I see one, I am apt to stop my car, stop other traffic, and jump into the road to escort the little animal to safety. Many of you have probably also experienced the Eastern Box Turtle this way. The turtles seem determined to cross the road, but why? Perhaps they are looking for a mate, or the road intersects part of their territory. Whatever the case, these road meetings can be disastrous for our little friends.
The Eastern Box Turtle is the most common terrestrial turtle in the eastern United States. But for those of you who have never seen one, or didn’t know the name, this turtle grows to be about 6 inches long. It has a highly domed shell covered in variable mottled markings and patterns, usually a yellow-orange and blackish-brown.
They have a hinged bottom shell (plastron), which allows them to completely retreat into their protective armor and seal off the entrance plate. This makes the adults nearly invulnerable to attack. Their clawed feet are slightly webbed, and their upper jaw is hooked like a parrot’s beak. They eat just about anything, from earthworms to berries to mushrooms and vegetation.
They are not aquatic turtles, but they will enter the water to cool off or drink. On a warm summer day, I encountered a large happy turtle sitting at the bottom of a deep mud hole with only the top of his head poking out of the muddy water. When it gets cold, turtles burrow into the ground to hibernate, sometimes as deep as 2 feet beneath the surface.
If you find an Eastern Box Turtle and want to guess the sex, the males have much redder eyes and a more flat-shaped top shell. The bottom shell is also slightly concave to aid in mounting the female. The females have more brown eyes, and a more domed shell. Once the turtles reach sexual maturity at about 7 to 10 years old (5–6 inches in length), they will mate.
The female lays 3–6 eggs in the spring in a shallow nest and leaves them to hatch on their own. The young emerge at 1.25 inches in length in late summer to early fall. They remain well hidden for the first few years of their life, sticking to their home range of about 750 feet in diameter. Box turtles are happiest in a moist forest with plenty of underbrush, but may venture into any place from wooded swamps to open fields. Home ranges of individual turtles seem to overlap; regardless of age or sex, the turtles don’t seem to mind neighbors.
If a box turtle can avoid danger, it commonly lives up to 30 years. They have been documented as living up to 50 years. Humans cause many of the box turtles’ problems. Clearing for development eliminates habitat for the turtles and fragments existing habitat, isolating populations.
People can participate in turtle rescues, where they enter a property to find and relocate as many turtles as possible before the bulldozers started working. This obviously isn’t ideal, and the turtles may try to return to their home. That is why relocating a turtle you find on the road can be disastrous. They have a strong homing instinct, and will try to get back to the place they call home, often crossing dangerous roads in the process.
If you do see a turtle crossing a road, and it is safe to stop, you should help them across in the direction they were headed. You also should never try to keep a wild box turtle as a pet. Removing the turtle also removes all the offspring it would have produced, which puts a huge strain on the population. Each individual turtle that reaches maturity is vital to keep numbers up.
Other helpful things include avoiding mowing fields and shrubby areas to conserve habitat, and refraining from driving ATVs in nesting areas from June to October. Turtles need our protection, and they need to remain in the wild to live their lives.