Box turtles

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Eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina) crossing the road on Easter Sunday.

Yesterday, I was out in the garden and looked down to see one of the resident box turtles right next to my foot.  The kids and a neighbor friend were running around having a nerf gun battle, so I moved the turtle to a quiet spot where he wouldn’t be stepped on and gave him a couple of strawberries.

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Om nom nom

Each eastern box turtle has a unique pattern of markings, and by the spots on his head and carapace, I recognize this turtle as the one we have named Percy Shelley.  Here he is in 2010 and 2013:

same turtle
The mess on Percy’s chin in the right picture suggests he has been eating slugs or earthworms.

With its terrestrial habits, its domed shell, and its elephant-like feet, the eastern box turtle resembles a little tortoise, but it is actually a terrestrial member of the pond turtle family (Emydidae).  Its common name, box turtle, comes from the hinged plastron which gives it the ability to close up tight like a sealed box.

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The underside of a sealed box turtle showing the plastron hinge. Its head is to the right.

As you might guess from its scientific name–Terrapene carolina carolina–the eastern box turtle is very much a native of the NC piedmont.  In 1979, it was designated the official State Reptile of North Carolina.

It’s not clear that being the State Reptile has done box turtles much good.  They’re still relatively common, but numbers are almost certainly declining due to development and increased traffic on roads.  Box turtles live in relatively small territories, but during the summer they’ll go walkabout, especially on humid mornings after rain.  Many are killed by cars, and I have found turtles with cracked and healed shells suggesting that they had a narrow escape.

When it is safe to do so, I always stop to help turtles across the road. If you want to do the same, be sure to move the turtle in the direction it was headed, so it won’t have to try crossing the road again. And please please make sure that it is safe before getting out of the car.  People have been killed by traffic trying to help turtles across the road.

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A very pretty half-grown turtle I found crossing a road last summer.

When we first put up the deer fence, I worried a bit about trapping wild box turtles inside the fence.  It has now been more than five years since the fence went up, and our local residents seem to be doing fine.  Either they have ways of getting through (or under) the fence, or the garden gives them everything they need to survive.  Percy Shelley seems to be an adult male, and I have seen at least one slightly smaller female.  From time to time, I also run across young turtles in the garden, including tiny hatchlings.

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Three tiny hatchlings, together with their eggshells, that I uncovered in a damp mulch pile. Each hatchling still has its little egg tooth at the tip of its beak.

The baby box turtle’s carapace becomes more domed as it ages.  The little hatchlings, with their flatter shells, look a lot like their aquatic relatives:

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I’m not sure if this hatchling is a yellow bellied slider or a river cooter. I gave it a lift down to the water, as it was heading in the wrong direction.
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Hatchling box turtle with carapace not much more domed than its aquatic cousin
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A slightly older juvenile rescued from in front of the lawn mower. Its carapace is still fairly flat.

If you want to make your piedmont garden more box turtle-friendly, consider adding a nice pile of wood chips in a quiet corner and leave fallen leaves to rot undisturbed in areas where they don’t disrupt your landscaping.  Salamanders and lizards will also appreciate the effort.  The turtles might like a shallow dish of water, especially during dry weather, but avoid deep, steep-sided garden ponds that a box turtle could drown in.  Box turtles eat a lot of worms, slugs, and snails, so avoid toxic slug pellets.

If you find a turtle crossing the road, please don’t be tempted to take it home to your garden, no matter how turtle-friendly you have made it.  A turtle moved from its home territory will have much more difficulty finding food and safe places to hibernate, and it may be killed trying to find its way back to familiar land.

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