Box Turtles on the Move

It’s the annual turtle time in Texas. Box turtles, moving at a persevering, goal-oriented, steadfast speed, appear increasingly this time of year. This is the season for their annual migration from moist forest to grassland, and they are often seen easing their way across roads, where too many meet their doom. Habitat change isn’t their only motivation for movement. They are also overwhelmed with turtle hormones and are seeking a mate. After all, spring is for lovers, even very slow, deliberate ones. Widely found in East Texas, they also range from Missouri south to Alabama.

Turtles are related to snakes, but most people, asked to name common reptiles, usually think only of snakes, and less often mention turtles. While snakes are generally not very popular with people, turtles usually elicit a kindlier response. Perhaps that’s partly because we’ve all heard Aesop’s tale of the race between the tortoise and the hare in which the overconfident rabbit, the hands-down favorite, goofs off and is bested by the never-resting, constantly-toiling turtle. The fact is, turtles may be slow, but they are definitely not quitters.

All reptiles share the fact that they are “cold-blooded.” However, this description isn’t based on a deviant personality problem. Their metabolism, unlike ours, doesn’t generate enough heat to keep them warm and chilling brings their life-processes almost to a halt. The environment controls their body temperature. To maintain ideal body temperature, they move into shade or burrow to escape too much heat and into the sun to warm up. Turtles trapped in direct sun will die of heat stroke.

In our area, the three-toed box turtle is common. We’ve had a couple spending much of their winter and early spring in and near our pond. Their name comes from the three toes on their hind feet; the occasional odd-ball may have four. Box turtles are not too observant as they meander along and their migratory treks don’t lend themselves well to roadways, where many are killed by unobservant drivers. Unfortunately, some are also run over by sadistic people who just like to hear them pop. In any case, their numbers are becoming depleted. Box turtles have a light to dark brown, dome-shaped carapace (the upper shell), and may have yellow spots on their legs, neck, and head. Males often have quite a bit of red on their head, and long toenails.

One of the few fully armored animals since knights passed into history, box turtles have a hinge about a third of the way back in their plastron (the lower shell) that allows them to withdraw into themselves, tightly closing the “hatches” both fore and aft for protection from predators. Land dwellers, rather than true amphibians or pond occupants, these turtles normally eat earthworms, snails, grubs, fruit, leaves, insects, and sometimes carrion.

Although breeding time for box turtles is generally in the spring, it may also take place during summer and fall. When conditions are right after fertilization, the female digs a nest in the ground at night and lays from 2-8 eggs that incubate for about three months before hatching. The newborn turtles (turtlettes?) are about the size of a quarter, and raccoons are fond of them for bite-sized hors d’oeuvres. Adult box turtles may grow to 6 inches long or larger.

Warning! Turtles often carry a disease organism called Salmonella that can make people very ill. Although it was once common to see baby turtles for sale in stores, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1970 banned the sale of those under 4 inches in length after a widespread outbreak of salmonellosis, a food poisoning associated with undercooked meat, chicken, eggs, and handling turtles. According to the FDA, the disease organism “can be found on the outer skin and shell surfaces” of turtles. The symptoms of salmonellosis include “vomiting, fever, diarrhea, and cramps. For high-risk individuals, such as those with weakened immune systems, those taking antibiotics, pregnant women, the elderly, and children under 5, salmonellosis may be even more devastating, leading to blood infections, meningitis, abortion, and death.”

If you see one of these critters the recommended practice, as with all wild things, is to enjoy them only in their natural habitat. But, if you have a turtle pet, be sure to wash your hands thoroughly after you handle them, and don’t eat while you are working with them. Then, after you’ve enjoyed them for a time, put them back where they came from.

Dr. Risk is a professor emeritus in the College of Forestry and Agriculture at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. Content © Paul H. Risk, Ph.D. All rights reserved, except where otherwise noted. Click to send questions, comments, or request permission for use.