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Nature’s Best By Elma Chapman - Eastern Box Turtles

While out bicycling on the Nickel Plate Trail on Friday, which is a rail-trail extending more than 40 miles from Rochester to near Kokomo in Indiana, we were entertained by several small creatures. Numerous chipmunks skittered across the trail and birds were singing as they passed overhead. We saw several cardinals, robins, and indigo buntings, and I think maybe a redstart, although since it was darting into the bushes I can’t be sure of its markings. But just before the end of our journey we saw an object on the trail that was larger than a chipmunk and much slower moving. As we approached, we recognized it as a box turtle.

Eastern box turtles are not endangered in Indiana, but they are of concern because their numbers are dwindling. That’s why it is illegal to pick one up and take it home. Box turtles can live around 50 years in the wild, and in captivity they have been known to live to 100 years with one being recorded at 138 years old when it died. Once they reach adulthood they are fairly safe from predation. Their biggest threats come from humans and automobiles. Loss or fragmentation of habitat through development makes it harder for them to survive. I just read a story that said the Department of Natural Resources relocated about 60 box turtles during the construction of the extension of I-69 in Southwest Indiana two years ago.

A box turtle is called that because it is the only kind of turtle that can close its shell after drawing in its head and tail. It has a hinge on the underside that allows it to do so. Box turtles are terrestrial; that is, they don’t live primarily in water as all other turtles found in Indiana do. They prefer an open woodland environment near shallow ponds or marshes. You can find box turtles in our county parks. We saw one crossing the trail while we were hiking in Maple Wood in May.

Box turtles eat a lot of different kinds of food: berries, insects, snails, worms, roots, flowers, fish, frogs, snakes, salamanders, fungi, eggs, and carrion. The one we saw was near some ripe wild black raspberries, some of which we had just harvested for ourselves for an afternoon snack. A nice mouthful of raspberry would certainly help to wash down some of the other less appetizing parts of his dinner, to my way of thinking! We left plenty for him.

I say “him” because I read that the males usually have red eyes and in the color photo he definitely has a red eye. Since we didn’t use a flash, I’m pretty sure the red eye was natural.

Box turtles need about 10 years to reach reproductive age, and they find their mates visually. Since they move so slowly they may not encounter many females to mate with. Nature has compensated for that a bit – once a female has mated, she can produce fertilized eggs for up to four years before she needs to mate again. Usually a female will lay four to six eggs in one nest and may make several nests between April and June. The eggs have a flexible shell and are very vulnerable to predators such as raccoons, snakes, skunks, and foxes.

The sex of a turtle depends on the temperature in the nest: warmer temperatures produce females and cooler temperatures favor males. If you should be so lucky as to have a turtle lay eggs in your yard, you might want to put a mesh fence around and above the nest to keep out skunks and raccoons. It takes about three months for the baby turtles to emerge.

If you see a turtle crossing the road, the best thing to do is to help it across before a car comes. If you pick it up and carry it across, make sure you take it in the direction it was heading, otherwise it will just turn around and try to cross again.

Turtles are interesting creatures, but best observed from a distance and not disturbed. Let’s hope the “do not collect” law helps them increase their numbers in our state.