LBL Wildlife Report: It's Box Turtle Season
In the next installment of Land Between the Lakes' Wildlife Report, Woodlands Nature Station lead naturalist John Pollpeter speaks to Tracy Ross about box turtles and what to do when one is found in the wild (or on the road).
Box turtles are common throughout the Land Between the Lakes area. The turtles have a "growth pattern that's very similar to aquatic turtles, though they're mainly based on land," Pollpeter explains. "They get the name 'box turtle' because they can completely pull their entire body, head, tail, legs, and back legs into the shell and close it up behind them."
"The shell is kind of a dark brown with some light highlights with yellows, oranges, and lighter browns," he continues. "It kind of looks like dappled sunlight through a forest floor. That's the easiest way to tell [box turtles] apart from [other turtles]. They also have a domed shell. That domed shell allows them to pull those body parts in. Most of the time, they're on land."
Pollpeter explains that late April and early May are the best times for observing box turtles in the wild. "It's getting to be breeding season. The males are very colorful. When you come across some of these box turtles, the males are going to have vivid colors on their back. The males have bright red eyes; females have brown eyes. They're trying to find females, food, so you're going to see a lot more of them moving across from their hibernation locations to breeding grounds or good feeding grounds."
Unfortunately, these journeys for food and companionship often place box turtles in the middle of the road. Box turtles are relatively harmless and are safe to move out of the way of traffic, but Pollpeter warns that "the most dangerous thing about moving a box turtle across the road is the other traffic. You always have to make sure when you're pulling off the road that you're watching traffic. You don't want to be the next roadkill because you're trying to help a turtle."
Since box turtles' home ranges are incredibly small--sometimes as low as four acres--Pollpeter says it's important to only move box turtles in the direction they were moving. "If you take it and it's closer to the right-hand side, but it's moving to the left-hand side, that turtle's going to turn right back around and go across the road. You always want to move the turtle in the direction it's going."
Removing a box turtle from its habitat is prohibited in Land Between the Lakes. Pollpeter says adopting a box turtle found in one's own backyard is not dangerous but not recommended, either. "These things can live up to 80 years. This is a pet you might have to put in your will. They have very specific dietary requirements that make it very difficult for them to grow and to live. If you don't match those requirements, if you don't do your research, you could actually be doing more harm to that particular animal."
"One of the things we also try to discourage is if you take [the turtle] in as a pet, don't let it go anywhere. Don't take it to Missouri and release it or take it 20 miles down the road. If you do decide to keep it and it's not been in contact with any other kinds of exotic turtles, release it back in the location that you had it before. Its home range is almost imprinted in its brain, and it will go where it's familiar. It doesn't adapt well to new locations."
Pollpeter says that box turtles don't have to be returned to the precise location they were found, but "within a couple acres of that, because its home range is so small. That way, it can find a good place to hibernate during the winter, and it knows where its food sources are. A lot of times, if you take it down the road and you release it in a location it's not familiar with, it may wander around trying to find those places that it's more familiar with."
Unlike snapping turtles, box turtles don't pose an imminent danger to humans. These turtles can, however, become poisonous. "There's a big difference between venomous and poisonous," Pollpeter explains. "Venomous is an animal that injects its venom--a snake, spider, scorpion, or bee. Poisonous is something that you either absorb through your skin or ingest. Box turtles aren't born poisonous. They have a tendency to eat a lot of poisonous mushrooms. Those toxins that are in those mushrooms get incorporated into [the turtle's] skin and its tissue, and it makes it very unpalatable for things like a raccoon, coyote, or fox."
Box turtles are "a fun little animal to have and to know. It's definitely one of the easiest animals when you come hike in Land Between the Lakes to come across, and we encourage everybody to take as many pictures as you can and watch its behavior. They are an important seed dispersal for a lot of plants. If you like spring wildflowers, they disperse a lot of the seeds for those plants. They're very good at eating insects. They're just a cute little animal to have around," Pollpeter concludes.