Spring species – who is the Eastern box turtle?
With spring finally getting off to a solid start, chances are you’ve noticed the song of the chorus frog, the flight of the question mark butterfly, and the blooms of many spring ephemeral wildflowers. Soon, you’ll notice many more animals emerging from hibernation, including many of Indiana’s native turtle species.
One of our most beautiful native turtles is the Eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina). Found primarily in the central and southern parts of the state, this turtle is almost entirely terrestrial, living out its life in woodlands near small streams and ponds. Sometimes this turtle can be found soaking in streams and ponds to keep cool on the hottest days of the summer. These omnivores have a diverse diet, consisting of fruits, insects, worms, slugs, and fungi. They occasionally even scavenge dead animals for a meal.
The Eastern box turtle is a very slow growing, long-lived species. They don’t reach sexual maturity until at least seven years of age and ultimately don’t reach their full size until about age 20. Some individuals may live for 100 years or more! One reason for their longevity is the way they protect themselves from predators and other hazards. Their plastron (belly side of the shell) is hinged like a drawbridge, allowing them to withdraw their head and limbs, pull the plastron shut, and completely cut off access to the outside world (putting the “box” in box turtle). Sometimes the box turtle will keep their plastron shut during tough environmental circumstances, such as difficult weather or even lack of food availability. In this state, they can slow down their metabolisms and wait for a more ideal time to search for food before they become active again.
Eastern box turtles are protected in the state of Indiana and are listed as a threatened species. Since 2004, it has been illegal to collect box turtles, dead or alive, from the wild in the state of Indiana. However, they still remain vulnerable to illegal collection, predation, habitat loss and roadway accidents. Spring is the time of year when box turtles emerge from their hibernation burrows and become more active. At this time of year, they will begin to actively search for mates. Most box turtles will lay eggs during May and June. As you are out traveling county roads and highways, keep an eye out for turtles crossing roadways to search for mates and to access nesting sites. If you see a turtle in the road, it is best to safely come to a stop, make sure it is safe to exit your vehicle, and carefully move the turtle across the road in the direction that it was traveling. It is safest to handle a turtle by the back edge of the shell, near the back legs. This protects the turtle’s body from injury and protects you from a potential bite. It is never safe to handle a turtle by the tail or any other limb. If you find an injured turtle, it is generally best to leave it alone if the injury seems minor. Major injuries may require the help of a veterinarian or licensed wildlife rehabilitator. A list of licensed wildlife rehabilitators can be found at http://www.in.gov/dnr/fishwild/5492.htm.
Ashley Holmes is the Extension Educator for Agriculture & Natural Resources at Purdue Extension – Montgomery County. She can be reached at (765)-364-6363 or firstname.lastname@example.org.