Whether it was in the wild or in captivity, most of us have seen a box turtle at least once in our lives. At the time, we may not have given this small reptile much consideration. They move slowly, lumbering along on their short legs and seldom seem interested in interacting with the curious humans who cross their path. They generally retreat at the first sign of confrontation, retracting their head and legs and using a hinged plastron (the bottom portion of the shell) to close up behind them, forming an impenetrable box. This behavior earned them the name “box turtle.”
There are four natives species of box turtles in North America: The Eastern Box Turtle, Florida Box Turtle, Gulf Coast Box Turtle and Three-toed Box Turtle. Eastern Box Turtles are native to our area and they, like much of the wildlife living in North America, are in an increasingly vulnerable position. Habitat loss is a constant threat. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, box turtle populations have fallen over 30 percent in three generations. This number, while upsetting, in not entirely surprising. Box turtles are particularly vulnerable to many of the dangers that come from living close to humans. As they lumber along, moving at a pace so slow it is measured in feet per hour, they often find themselves crossing into densely populated areas where they are hit by cars, attacked by domestic animals, and picked up by the occasional human who thinks they will make a good pets.
About half of all of the box turtles City Wildlife sees are suffering from an actual injury like being attacked by an animal or hit by a car. The other half have nothing wrong with them. Concerned citizen see them meandering through urban areas and, either believing the turtle is injured or that they should be relocated, scoop them up and bring them in for treatment.
This creates a whole new set of problems. Box turtles cannot be relocated. They spend their entire lives–which can span over a hundred years–in one small area and, if moved, they will spend the rest of their life trying to get home, crossing through unfamiliar territory and usually dying in the process.
This is a great loss. Box turtles are an integral part of the forest ecosystem. Much like Virginia Opossums, they are opportunistic omnivores that will eat anything in their path. This includes many pest insects that overwhelm beneficial plants, snails, slugs, worms, fungi, berries, roots, flowers, fish, frogs, salamanders, snakes, birds, eggs, and dead animals. According to the National Wildlife Federation, passage through a box turtle’s gut may actually increase seed germination rates for a number of plants.
Box turtles do more than show us the health and future of the forest, they offer us a window into the past. Turtles–both those who live on land and water– have existed for eons. The oldest fossil found so far dates back to the beginning of the Triassic period, over 200 million years ago. They, along with birds and a few other reptiles and aquatic life forms, represent a living link to the dinosaurs who roamed this planet long ago. It would be sad to see them go.
Tips for helping turtles:
- NEVER DISTURB, PICK UP , OR MOVE A BOX TURTLE UNLESS IT HAS A VISIBLE INJURY OR IS IN IMMINENT DANGER.
- If you find a turtle in the road, move it to the other side in the direction it was going. DO NOT ATTEMPT TO RELOCATE IT. Turtles have small home territories and should be left where they are found. Their survival depends on it!
- DON’t KEEP WILD TURTLES AS PETS. If you truly desire a pet reptile and can make all of the commitments necessary to keeping a healthy, happy turtle, please look into adopting. You can call and speak to a staff member at City Wildlife for advice on where to adopt and how to care for a pet turtle
Found a box turtle? Click here to learn how you can help or give us a call at (202) 882-1000