Monday, September 28, 2009

Protecting Box Turtle Memories

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.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the article on box wife and I were talking about the very thing the other day. On a recent trip, I noticed young racoons and opossums dead at the side of the road, but no turtles, snakes, or toads. I have to wonder if the use of pesticides has also eliminated much of the food sources for these animals. My dad used to say that turtles, toads, and snakes came on to the road to eat insects knocked down by the cars. The idea being that the insects were drawn to the road by headlights. What ever the cause...there are less of these animals than used to it turtles or butterflies, they just aren't there any more.
What a shame for our children and grandchildren!! CAIRN MAN

PixieCorpse said...

(reasonably long-time reader, first-time commentor)

Wow. I knew I saw fewer box turtles around than in my childhood, but I didn't realize things were this serious. I teach college English, but I'm sure I can find some way to work a box turtle PSA into my curriculum.

I'm happy to report that I see box turtles regularly in my local woods. And yes, I generally find the same ones in the same spots--usually within a yard of where I saw the same animal at the same time the day before. Quite the little homebodies.

Valerie Hayes said...

Thanks for re-posting this. Box turtles can still be seen in GA, but old-timers and herpetologists agree that they are becoming fewer and fewer... As for working them into college English--look up the writings of Archie Carr. He was a great turtle biologist and a wonderful writer and wrote about box turtles. Another excellent turtle writer is David Carroll.

I like to recomment CK Dodd's North American Box Turtles: a Natural History.

Something you can get for free:

Marie said...

Found one meandering across my driveway last month and didn't want a delivery driver to run over it so I set it further onto our property in a secluded wooded area. Hope I didn't screw up its journey too badly. I love box turtles.


PixieCorpse said...

Thanks for the recommendations, Valerie!

jdg said...

This type of article is why I constantly read this blog. The pdf recommended above is great. I see a few each year turkey hunting and some at other times in the woods. thanks for the education.