Article and photos by Linda Hagan, Maryland Master Naturalist Intern
I think just about every one of us has come across a Eastern Box Turtle at some point in our lives. Maybe as a child your mom, dad, or grandparents introduced you to your first turtle out in the wild, and more than likely it was our Eastern Box Turtle. And what vegetable gardener has not waited in great anticipation for that first ripe, juicy tomato of the season only to go into the garden and find a big bite out of it. You look down under the tomato plant and find a box turtle with bits of your tomato hanging out of its mouth and juice dripping down it’s neck. How many good samaritans have stopped their cars when they see a box turtle crossing a road and help it get to the other side safely.
Yes our Eastern Box Turtle is pretty recognizable. We know the pretty brown to black carapace (top shell) with the yellow and orange, irregular blotched pattern. It makes a great camouflage in the forest litter because it mimics dappled sunlight. According to researchers mature turtles can be identified by the pattern of their shells. We go to pick it up and the turtle pulls its head, legs and tail inside the hinged plastron (bottom shell) and closes it shut tight as a box. This and the domed shape of the carapace is a perfect defense against predators.
I for many years kept finding the same box turtle around my property, but the only reason I knew it was the same turtle was because at some point in its life someone had carved their initials into its shell. That is not a good thing to do as it can harm or damage the turtles shell, but turtles with initials and dates have turned up that show the turtle to be more than a century old. Although that type of record may be hard to prove, there is good evidence to show box turtles can live to be 80 years old in captivity. In the wild however that is shortened to 30-40 years. Still pretty good for a wild creature.
The Eastern Box Turtle is a small turtle averaging 4 1/2” to 6” in length, but have been found as large as 8”. They live in mixed or deciduous forests, farm fields, our backyards and meadows. They prefer thick vegetation and areas with fallen and rotted trees where they can find shade to keep cool. Although box turtles cannot swim, they will seek a stream, puddle or under a rotted log where they can sit and cool off when it becomes too hot. Overheating can kill a turtle and interfere with body functions such as a “righting reflex” that allows them to right themselves if they have for some reason been turned on their backs.
Eastern Box Turtles are hibernating by November and may return to the same hibernating spot year after year. As soon as they emerge from hibernating in April they will eat and start searching for a mate. Mating can take place anytime when they are active into the fall and nesting occurs usually in June. The clutch size on average is five eggs. Box turtles do not reach sexual maturity until 8-10 years of age. Female turtles do not have to mate every year and can actually store sperm up to 4 years. When the female turtle is ready to lay her eggs she may travel from a few feet to more than a mile in her home range. The box turtle has a limited home range. They spend their whole lives in an area from .05 to 10 acres, but usually less than 2 acres. This is the reason if you find a box turtle crossing a road you should NEVER take it to a different area. Simply pick the turtle up and take it in the direction it was going and release it. Also many turtles found crossing roads in June or July are often pregnant females looking for a nesting site. Many a well meaning human, including myself have thought they were doing the right thing by taking the turtle to what we thought was a safer area. This is indeed detrimental to the turtle. It knows its’ home range and needs to remain there.
There are two ways to determine whether the Eastern Box Turtle is a male or female which is easy and fun to teach children. When I helped at “Nature in the Classroom” in a local elementary school in Frederick, I got the biggest kick out of children’s reaction when we told them to check the eyes. If the eyes are red it’s usually a male, and the plastron is concave. Females have brown eyes and a flat plastron.
Eastern Box Turtles are omnivorous and eat many different foods such as: earthworms, slugs, snails, insects, frogs, toads, small snakes, grass, fruits and berries, fungi, carrion and yes a few of our garden tomatoes. But remember all those slugs and snails are munching on your flowers and vegetables too, so loosing a few tomatoes is well worth the price to pay these mild mannered turtles for getting rid of those garden pests. Turtle eggs in turn become food for other animals. Skunks, foxes, raccoons, snakes and crows eat the eggs, and the hatchlings become prey as well. It is all part of nature keeping its ecosystem in balance.
Although once quite common the Eastern Box Turtle is on the decline in many states due to the loss of habitat. The best way to protect these turtles is preserving their habitat, never disturbing their nest, and never removing them from the wild. Remember if you see them crossing a road the best thing to do is help them cross, but do not remove them from their home range unless there is construction going on that threatens to destroy their home. At that time you should call someone from DNR and seek their advice.
If you find a injured turtle call a wildlife expert or someone from DNR and let them know where the turtle is so they can access the injuries and they will take it to a veterinarian if needed. If it is determined it can no longer survive in the wild because of its injuries it may go to live in a place such as a nature center where it will live out its life and become a animal ambassador to educate the public. We have a Eastern Box Turtle named Toby as well as other turtles and animals at Fountain Rock Park. Toby came to live at Fountain Rock over 20 years ago when his injuries made it difficult for him to survive any longer in the wild. Toby has become one of our most loved ambassadors teaching children and adults a like, at the center and in the classrooms he is taken to. The more we learn and share with each other about the creatures we share our planet with, the more we want to protect and conserve them.
There are many do’s and don’ts involving nature we as humans have to learn. The more informed we become, the more we share that information with others, the better chance the creatures around us have of being here for future generations. What a sad world it would be without the wonderful diversity of life.