A repost from July 2005
Very rarely the dogs and I will come across a box turtle as we hunt along hedgerow and field.
When I was a kid, box turtles were fairly common -- we would find them under the hedges and under the grape arbor at my grandparents place in Kansas -- or in the woods along the river closer to home here in Virginia.
Now they are very rare.
The decline of box turtles is largely due to the tremendous rise of roads in the U.S., and the increasing habitat fragmentation these roads have produced.
A turtle's hard shell can withstand examination by a dog, but not the crushing load of a car.
Kids collect a lot of turtles as well. Invariably these animals die in salmonella-soaked aquariums, or else they escape from the confines of a backyard and are run over by a car.
Box turtles live longer than any other wild species in the United States -- 100 years or more is certainly in the cards.
The box turtle is not like the sea turtle or the snapping turtle -- this is an animal that lays only four or five eggs a year, and these eggs -- and whatever young actually hatch out -- must survive the onslaught of raccoon and possums, fox and dogs, disease and the ever-present gauntlet of cars and kids.
Turtles have a high degree of fidelity to relatively small areas, living out their long lives in a few dozen acres of woods. This little patch of woods will supply the box turtle with all the worms, insects, leaves, berries, mushrooms and slugs it needs to survive.
The trouble is that very few other turtle-ranges may overlap this little patch of woods. The result is that if even a single male or female box turtle is removed from a parcel of woods, that loss may effectively kill off all reproductive capacity of other turtles in the area.
Unfortunately, transporting a turtle to a new patch of woods generally dooms it. Turtles may not be brilliant animals, but they are dogged, and if moved to a new patch of woods they will spend years wandering about fruitlessly looking for their ancestral homes. The long-distance excursions these animals invariably take result in turtles crossing roads and being killed by oncoming traffic.
The bottom line: if you know of a child that has removed a box turtle from forest or farm, find out exactly where the turtle was collected, and release it back to the wild in the same location.
The precipitous decline of box turtles in the United States was finally recognized in the early 1990s, and in 1995 all U.S box turtles were formally protected from collection and trade under the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES).
CITES does not save turtles from cars or kids, however -- only education can do that. If you have kids or have access to a classroom of kids, please pass on the fact that box turtles are an endangered species and should NEVER be collected from the wild or transported out of the woods of their birth.
The box turtle is a tough animal, but a fragile species. For those of us who grew up playing in the woods, it is an icon of our youth -- a great treasure found rummaging through the leaves.
Like so much of what we treasure about this great country, however, it is on the verge of being destroyed by human population growth and the development that such population growth invariably engenders.