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
THERE ARE TIMES A TURTLE NEEDS TO BE REMOVED! WHEN TWO BOYS ARE TRYING TO ‘OPEN’ THEM WITH A KNIFE! YOU’D BE SURPRISED HOW MANY PEOPLE THINK THEY COME AND GO LIKE A HERMIT CRAB! OR-WHEN THEIR PLOT OF LAND . IN THAT CASE,TAKE THEM TO ALSE; PARK OR NATURE OUT POST! IF YOU ARE OUT IN THE COUNTRY, SMELL THE FOREST THE LOAM THE FERNS ,THAT”WOODSY” SMELL! THE BESTTHING YOU CAN DO FOR THIS LIL’ GUYYS IS “TOLEAVE THEM WHERE YOU FIND THEM!” DANDO- REHABILITATOR, FOR56 YRS……….
Hi Daniel — Thank you so much for taking the time to read our post and give us feedback. It is wonderful to hear that you have been doing this great work Rehabilitating animals!
steve prophater says
I live over 1/2 mike from the closest paved road, 1/4 mile from my closest neighbor, a long a river in deep woods of central NC. I have relocated many box turtles from urban roadways to our property. How do you know they will die trying to get back where I found them!? Have you actually tracked one in a similar situation until it died?? I need proof that it is better to leave them near a busy roadway than relocate them thousands of yards, in natural environment, away from urban areas!!! I am pretty sure, most of their deaths occur from automobiles! It should be part of a driver’s exam to miss a brick in the road!!! It’s not like a squirrel zigzagging all over the road! People either are not paying attention or hit them on purpose! I have rescued many injured, some taken to rehab, some cared for and released at home.
Jim Monsma says
Yes, this phenomenon has been rather extensively studied. One study was even done with our local box turtles in Washington, DC’s Rock Creek Park.
Susan Detwiler says
I saw an ADORABLE baby box turtle on my driveway yesterday morning, and did no more than photograph it, because I now know better than to move them if they’re not hurt or in danger. Many years ago, I rescued one from a highway ramp, where I had witnessed it being hit and spun around by cars. After making sure it was not hurt, I released it in my yard–I hope this turtle got to where it wanted to be!
Megan McGuire says
I wish I had known this!! 😢 I had found a box turtle on the road and had brought it home and turned it loose in my backyard. I’ve been looking for it to return it to its home but haven’t found it. Now I feel like a murderer. Do they ever live after being relocated?
Shannon Stevens says
I did the same thing. I back to woods and a huge farm. I found an urban turtle trying to cause several lanes of roadway in heavy traffic. I stopped all the cars and picked him up. He was terrified and was completely shuttered in his shell when I found him in the middle of the road. He was not injured but I was afraid if I let him go on the other side he’d just be roadkill as soon he crossed the hill into more roads.
I took him home and released him by me where it’s a dense forest and ponds. I honestly didn’t know and now feel awful. I hope he’s okay.
Sharon Runnels says
We live in a subdivision and had a box turtle come into our yard. Across our street is the woods. We are returning it to the woods.
Not long ago I found a box turtle huddled in a patch of gravel outside my chiropractor’s office in a strip mall. Didn’t seem to be anywhere for it to go without crossing the parking lot and several streets. Thought maybe it had been dropped there by something, but it didn’t seem hurt. We took it to the nearby park next to the pond. If that’s not where it originally came from, well, I hope it made it home, but I don’t see how it came from the strip mall. Felt very sure it would die either way if we left it there!
Beth Wright says
The only thing anyone should ever do in terms of moving box turtles is to move them from the middle of a road where they are in grave danger of been crushed under the tire of a vehicle and move them to the roadside where they were headed. Do not ever take it upon yourself to decide that they should go somewhere else that you consider better or safer for them. You have no freakin’ idea!