On my hike in the woods last week I came across an abandoned box turtle carapace…but yesterday I happily found a live turtle wandering through my garden.
Eastern box turtles are the most common species of turtles on the east coast, a fact which belies their fascinating biology. They are an extremely long-lived species, and can reach ages of up to 50 years in the wild. You can approximate their age by counting the number of rings on the scutes, or scales, of their plastron, which is the underside of their shell.
They will eat just about anything, including mushrooms poisonous to other species, rendering their flesh inedible. Because of this, the box turtle held a special status in Native American mythology and beliefs.
The box turtle has a unique feature among other species in this region: its plastron is hinged. The turtle can retract inside its shell and completely close itself off to predators. This one is partially shut:
Although box turtles are a common species, their populations are in decline due to habitat fragmentation. Box turtles have a very strong homing instinct, and, using the earth’s magnetic fields to navigate, will attempt to return to the general area of their birth if they are moved. This can be dangerous when their territory is bisected or destroyed by roads or other development. If you find a turtle in the wild, it is okay to gently and briefly pick it up — but always put it back exactly where you found it. If a turtle is crossing a road, do not move it back in the direction it came from, as it will probably just head right back into the street! (Also note that if you do touch a turtle, please be sure to wash your hands thoroughly afterward as they can transmit salmonella).
It is sometimes easy to take common wildlife sightings for granted — but taking a closer look is always worthwhile. The box turtle is no exception!