EASTERN BOX TURTLE (Terrapene carolina carolina)
New York State’s most terrestrial turtle, the eastern box turtle, is one of six native species of turtles found on Long Island, with the exclusion of sea turtles. The eastern box turtle is one of six subspecies of the common box turtle found in the U.S. and Mexico. It is easily distinguished from the Long Island’s five primarily aquatic species due to its highly domed
and brightly highlighted carapace (upper shell). This turtle’s hinged plastron (lower shell) is an effective and invaluable mechanism of defense, allowing it to close off from predators. The box turtle’s red to orange coloration allows them to camouflage in their habitat of fields and forests; though you can also find them soaking in shallow pools and wetlands during hot and dry periods. As opportunistic omnivores, box turtles eat a large variety of things, some of which include: mushrooms, berries, snails, insects, worms and flowers. Fascinatingly, since they often consume poisonous mushrooms, toxins can accumulate in their bodies and in turn they become poisonous to eat!
In the wild, box turtles live an average of 40-50 years, but some have been known to reach up to 100 years old! Reaching their full size at around 20 years of age, their shell length ranges from 4.5 – 6 inches. While they are socially tolerant and it is common for these turtles to share a home range, most box turtles spend their entire lives within 2.5-25 acres of the nest from which they hatched. This however, can make reproduction difficult if turtles are reluctant to leave their home in search of a mate and cannot find one in their range. Remarkably, box turtles have adapted to account for this separation; females can lay fertile eggs for up to four years after a successful mating! An average clutch size is 3-8 eggs, and females can lay more than one clutch per year. The sex of the hatchling is often dependant on the temperature of incubation; warmer
temperatures lead to female hatchlings and colder to male hatchlings. Once grown, males and females can be distinguished by eye coloration (males typically red, females typically brown) and also by the shape of the plastron (males concave, females convex). Eggs and hatchlings are extremely vulnerable to predation, as they are not protected by the parents; this is why it is very important for us to protect turtle populations, many of which are declining.
There are many things that we can do to help protect and sustain turtle populations. Educating yourself about turtles is very beneficial, as is learning what to do and not to do if you find a wild turtle. It is important to not relocate them from their home territory, but if you find a turtle crossing the road you can help them across if it is safe to do so. Fragmentation of their habitats and the development of roads through their home range is a common cause of turtle loss and injury. Also, keep an eye out while mowing or treating your lawn and keep pets away. If you do find an injured turtle contact a turtle rescue center or wildlife rehabilitator. And of course remember turtles are protected in many areas including New York State, so keep them wild and enjoy observing them from a distance!
by Renee Allen