Wild Ideas: Eastern box turtle rescue

While I believe we should leave native wildlife where we find them – and in some cases, laws dictate that we do – circumstances sometimes demand a different course of action. Such was the case recently when, driving home, I spotted a young eastern box turtle that was upside down on a road near my house. Likely a large vehicle going fast over the turtle created enough air turbulence to flip it upside down.

I stopped and retrieved the turtle, whose shell was tightly closed but otherwise looked undamaged, and took it home to ensure it was not hurt. By the time I got home, the turtle was roaming around in the car. When I picked it up, it withdrew inside its shell again, but then slowly opened the front of its plastron (lower shell), which is hinged, to peer out.

The shells of box turtles make the logistics of reproduction problematic, but one adaptation that’s helped is the plastron of males’ evolving to be somewhat concave, to accommodate the dome-shaped upper shell of the female during mating. The plastron of the rescued turtle was slightly concave, so I concluded it was a male.

I put the little guy in a terrarium while I emailed Amo Merritt, our local wildlife rehabilitator, to see if she or one of her colleagues could help the turtle, if needed. It was a weekend, so I didn’t expect to hear back right away.

This young eastern box turtle was found upside down on a road. Having recovered from the ordeal, he checks out his situation before heading off into the forest. Photo by Pam Owen.
This young eastern box turtle was found upside down on a road. Having recovered from the ordeal, he checks out his situation before heading off into the forest. Photo by Pam Owen.

When I checked on the turtle about a half hour later, he was trying to climb out of the terrarium, so I took him to the grassy parking area in front of my house, put him down and sat a few feet away to observe him more closely. Male box turtles reach maturity in about five or six years, with a shell length of about six inches (although they can grow to almost eight inches). Judging by the length of this one’s shell (three and a half inches), he had a few years to go to before adulthood.

If the turtle didn’t meet an untimely demise, he could be around for 40 or 50 years. Some box turtles have even been known to reach 100.

If you want to travel back in time, just look at a box turtle. Despite his youth, this one looked ancient. I felt like I was falling back through millennia when I looked into his eyes.

The scientific name for the eastern box turtle, which is one of several subspecies of box turtle, is Terrapene carolina – Terrapene from the Algonquin word for turtle, and carolina from the place where it was first recorded. A native of North America, it ranges throughout the eastern part of the United States, from Georgia to almost the Canadian border. It can live in diverse habitats and up to elevations of 4,000 feet, which means that it’s found pretty much everywhere in Virginia except at the highest elevations of the Appalachians.

Wild box turtles are omnivorous, eating a wide variety of foods, including mushrooms, plant stems, leaves, flowers and fruits, slugs, insects, earthworms and other noninvertebrates. In captivity, they can do quite well on canned dog food. Since diet is key to survival, and box turtles are easy keepers, they do better in captivity than a lot of wild species. As a kid, I had several – one female even laid eggs in the large wooden box I kept her in.

Still, like all native wildlife, box turtles belong in the wild, and they’re needed there. Virginia’s Wildlife Action Plan lists the eastern box turtle as having a “high conservation need.” The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), in its “Redlist” (iucnredlist.org) of threatened species, reports “widespread persistent and ongoing gradual decline of Terrapene carolina that probably exceeds 30 percent over three generations,” which the organization puts “conservatively” as 50 years.

While the IUCN acknowledges that “causes of box turtle decline are not fully understood,” it points to a mix of factors, including intentional removal for the commercial pet trade, habitat destruction, pollution and pesticides, being run over by farm machinery or other vehicles, and increased predation (particularly of eggs and juveniles) by generalist wildlife that do well around humans (like raccoons, foxes and crows).

Since box turtles are slow to mature, and females lay only a few eggs a year – sometimes none – the species can’t adapt quickly to declines in population and are therefore more at risk of extinction than species that can reproduce faster.

My rescued turtle seemed perfectly healthy, so I wanted to release him but couldn’t bring myself to take him back where I found him. Box turtles typically have a territory of three to 11 acres, so no matter which direction he was originally heading, he’d likely end up back on that road.

Although I knew being in familiar territory would make it easier for him to find food and shelter, I also figured that where I lived, in a forested area at the edge of Shenandoah National Park, would likely be safer and offered good habitat. Even if he did head straight back to where I found him, about a mile away, he wouldn’t have to cross a road to get there, so I opted to release him into the woods in back of my house. I haven’t seen him since but hope he stuck around.

Anyone interested in helping with box turtle conservation can report turtle sightings on the Virginia Herpetological Society’s website, virginiaherpetologicalsociety.com.

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Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 275 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”