By Mark Fike
Summer is very near now and as people are starting to get cabin fever and go camping, hiking or fishing, they are encountering more wildlife. Box turtles are surely one of the animals that will be encountered as you roam the outdoors.
As a kid, I cannot count the number of times we encountered box turtles. It was always interesting to see the different markings on the shells and see how big the turtles were. If we were lucky, we would find hatchlings. Kids love to find turtles. Box turtles are the best because they are not aggressive and they move slow enough that even a toddler with supervision can enjoy watching them. Just don’t let your kids get rough with the turtles.
There are many subspecies of box turtles. The common box turtle can be found over much of the United States. They are also known as box tortoises due to their arched or domed shell. Box turtles also have a hinged door that allows them to retract into the safety of their shells from predators.
Their shells are often brown or black with orange or yellow markings and sometimes with a reddish tinge. Their noses have a hooked beak and their skin is mottled like their shell for camouflage.
Male box turtles tend to have a concave plastron that biologists feel is for breeding. Male box turtles also tend to have red or orange-colored eyes. Females tend to have brown or soft yellow-colored eyes.
I recall keeping a few box turtles for a day or so and then we would put a dot or two of paint on the shell where it would not easily wear off to see if we would encounter the turtle again. We rarely did. Keeping wildlife often requires a permit and can be illegal so check out local laws!
Box turtles make good pets where legal as they are relatively easy to care for. They need a good light source. Sunlight is the best and they eat a lot of things. Most of their diet is worms and insects, but fruit, berries, and vegetables are high on the list too. We had a box turtle parked under our blueberry bushes one summer for a few weeks!
If you do decide to keep one, check local laws and do not handle them too much. They prefer to be left alone. It takes 10 years or more for them to reach maturity to breed.
They usually mate in the summer and lay a half dozen eggs in a hole they dig several inches down in the dirt. Incubation lasts 3 months. Like other turtles, box turtle gender often is determined by the temperature of the nest. Warmer nesting conditions produce more females. Cooler temperatures produce males.
Hatchlings that are born later in the year are more likely to perish due to exposure to cold temperatures in the fall and winter. The lifespan of a turtle is said to be 50-100 years if they are not eaten by a predator or run over on a highway.
It is important not to remove a turtle from its home range as they often will try to get back to the area where they were born. This stresses the turtle. So, if you pick one up, keep it in the area where you found it to give it the best chance to survive.
This year, when you encounter a box turtle, see if you can tell if it is male or female and appreciate the fact that these humble critters might outlive most of us!