It is on wet, misty mornings like the ones we’ve had this week that Eastern box turtles (Terrapene carolina carolina) are encountered lumbering across roads in search of worms and other insects. If I’m on foot, I’ll simply help the turtle across the road. If I’m driving and it’s safe, I’ll pull over, activate my flashers and move the turtle to the berm, if possible in the direction it was heading.
The Eastern box turtle is most likely the best known turtle in Virginia, named for its ability to tuck in its head and legs and close up like a box, a defense action that causes thousands to be crushed beneath the wheels of automobiles each year. Deforestation for development is rapidly consuming the habitat of these gentle creatures that have survived for 250 million years. They have not been declared an endangered species although they are protected in some states. Once so numerous in my childhood, it’s apparent to me that the box turtles are disappearing from our landscape.
We do encounter these beautiful reptiles in our gardens and lawns in our rural area. Their diet consists of insects, fruits, mushrooms, berries and vegetables. Our dogs ignore them in the grass, the cats take a wide berth but I tell mister gardener that the greatest threat in crossing lawns is the tractor or lawn mower. It’s a good habit to always mow when the grass is dry and turtles have found cool shelter under mulch or leaf litter in the borders.
Recently, while a passenger in my neighbor’s car, I said, “Stop the car! There’s a turtle.” We were the only car on the road so I jumped out and helped a big male box turtle to the edge of the road. Upon returning, she said, “I’d never do that. How’d you know it wasn’t a snapping turtle?” Had I known she didn’t know the difference, I would have brought it back to the car to show her.
A box turtle’s carapace, or top shell, is domed and each turtle is colored in a varied pattern of yellow or orange on brown. The hinged lower shell, the plastron, is an indicator of the sex of the animal. Males have a concave shell and the female’s lower shell is flat. Males will often have bright red eyes, but not always! Females have brown or yellowish eyes. The male carapace is brighter and their legs can have
bright orange or red scales. The tail is longer on the male and their claws on the rear legs are thicker and more curved. The turtles you encounter could be 50 years old or more as their life span is over a hundred years. The approximate age of a turtle can be gauged by counting the growth rings on the bony plates of the carapace.
Although we have other species of turtles in the Commonwealth, the box turtle is our only terrestrial turtle. Others, such as snapping, musk, painted, spotted, so forth, are aquatic. Welcome these good-natured and ancient animals if you see them in your garden but avoid the temptation to pick one up elsewhere and bring it home. It’s now thought that they are territorial and will try to return to the original site.
Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Virginia