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ECOVIEWS: Box turtles inspire questions

April 16, 2018 GMT

Box turtles are iconic. They have been kept as pets by thousands of children – and adults – from Maine to Mexico. People have been moving them out of harm’s way since the automobile was invented. Their colorful domed shells and ability to close up completely make them easily identifiable. The following questions came from a reader in Georgia.

Q. I read on the Internet that if one moves an eastern box turtle from its original home, it will spend the rest of its shortened life wandering in stress trying to return. Is this true?

A. Considering the extensive variability in individual behavior and ecology in any geographically widespread species, I would say such an overgeneralization is patently false. I know of numerous box turtles transported elsewhere that have lived in good health for years. I doubt if a box turtle much cares where it is if it can find food, water, shelter and a mate – although like many animals it might prefer to stay at home and could try to return. Some are sedentary; others move long distances. Unfortunately, a turtle with wanderlust is more likely to encounter a highway and keep right on walking into traffic.

Q. I live on wooded property but have only seen two box turtles over 15 years. Does this mean they are rare in the area or that I just do not see them?

A. Some years we see none in our woods; other years we see several. I. Lehr Brisbin of the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Lab has studied box turtles in a suburban neighborhood by placing radio transmitters on them in order to locate them later. Over one three-year period he tracked a female that was always hidden in vegetation in the same backyard. Yet the residents, who spent time in the yard, had never seen the turtle. Box turtles, like most other wild animals, do not want to be seen.

Q. If a turtle is removed from a highway or very busy local road when it was trying to cross the roadway, where is the best place to release it? In very populated and busy areas, my inclination is to drive a mile or so to a much less populated area to give the turtle a better chance of survival. Am I shortening its life by relocating it?

A. I, too, remove and relocate them. You’re not shortening its life by moving it off of a road where its destiny is to be squashed by a car. As always, when rescuing a turtle or any other animal from certain death on a highway, make sure you pull over in a safe spot and watch for other drivers.

Q. I once witnessed a large migration of box turtles while driving across Oklahoma. Dozens of turtles were crossing the road on this one day. I stopped more than 50 times over about a 10-mile stretch of highway. I have never seen anything like this before or since. What could have caused this huge one-day turtle movement?

A. Those were probably ornate box turtles (a western box turtle) responding to a rain after a long drought. Sounds like an impressive phenomenon (and a long trip) to have witnessed. Turtles respond to a variety of environmental cues. Possibly, after being buried beneath the surface for weeks, they were moving to wetter areas where water and food were available. The males were likely hoping the females were headed the same way.

Q. How long do turtles live?

A. Based on long-term research studies, some turtles certainly live more than 50 years. One adult box turtle Brisbin captured was still alive and roaming the neighborhood 29 years later, On the other hand, reports about box turtles being found with George Washington’s initials carved on them or snapping turtles with musket balls embedded in the shell are suspect. But you can probably find such stories on the Internet.