Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Eastern Box Turtle

Terrapene carolina, eastern box turtle

Box turtles are small, typically about 4 or 6 inches long, and they take a long time to get that big. Their average life span is about 50 years, with some individuals living past 80. That's a blessing and a curse.

They don't reach sexual maturity until around age seven. Mature females only lay about 6 soft leathery eggs each year, in spring or summer. She covers them with dirt and then she leaves. The eggs take a long time to develop, hatching in late summer or in autumn. Meanwhile, raccoons, skunks, and foxes dig them up and eat them. So few offspring are born and populations replace themselves slowly.

A box turtle can pull in its head, legs, and tail, and then close the shell completely; the lower half is specially hinged to allow this. But their shells don't protect them from everything. During the past century their preferred habitats or woodland and wetland were converted to farms and then into suburbs. More roads mean more car fatalities for box turtles.

The turtles are terrestrial, usually found in grass or woods, not water. They are not good swimmers. On hot days they may cool off in mud or even soak at the edge of a shallow pool, but they avoid deep water. Hatchlings and youngsters are very shy; they stay in the undergrowth and are rarely seen. Eastern box turtles ranges from Massachusetts to Florida west to the Mississippi River, and north to the Great Lakes. The one in the picture was crossing a path in a New Jersey park on a hot September day in 2010.

They eat insects, worms, slugs, fruits and berries, mushrooms (even some that are toxic to humans), plants, and carrion. Those that live in the cold north hibernate in the ground during winter by digging into loose soil. The colder it gets, the deeper they go.

The eastern box turtle in the picture has bright orange markings on its typically tall dome-shaped shell. Individuals may also be yellow, tan, brown, or olive. Males are brighter than females and are famous for their bright orange or red eyes (brown in females). Adults are brighter than youngsters. So the turtle in the picture looks like an adult male. Their pretty colors work against them. Poaching for the domestic and international pet trade threatens them.

Box turtles were added to the CITES list in 1994 -- the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora -- the agency closely regulates exportation and commercial trade. Many states legally prohibit collecting box turtles from the wild too. So step away from the turtle! Put your hands up!

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