Nature Notes—Box Turtles

We’ve had a recent slew of birthdays in our family, and my five-year-old is now six. Her fascination with the animal world continues despite her advancing age, as do her endless questions. The most recent, “Can box turtles swim?” required some research and resulted in fascinating facts. 

Box turtle. Photos by Jenny Houghton.

Unlike those of their aquatic counterparts, the bodies of box turtles lack adaptations for life in the water. Circular rather than streamlined and without webbed toes, the box turtle’s strong suit is not stellar swimming. Nevertheless, box turtles can and do swim, either to escape predators or to cool off on a hot summer’s day. You may occasionally see them sitting in a puddle or dabbling along the edges of a small pond. You will not find them in deep water, where their lack of swimming finesse would leave them…in deep water. 

My daughter and I see the same box turtle each day on our nature walks. This is not surprising, as box turtles have a limited home range of no more than 750 feet in diameter. Thanks to my Master Naturalist training, the question “Is our box turtle a boy or a girl?” was answered without the need for research by a quick check to his plastron, or lower shell. Male box turtles have a concave plastron for easier mating. (Luckily, this fact did not elicit further questions.) Males usually also have bright red eyes, while the eyes of females are a duller brown. 

Eastern Box Turtles are among the most common reptiles to be spotted in Maryland and are not considered endangered in any state but Maine. Some states, however, do list the species as being of special concern. Not known for their speed, box turtles suffer greatly from traffic accidents. Habitat loss is also putting some at risk. 

Should you find a box turtle on your next nature walk, please leave it in place unless it’s in the middle of the road or similarly endangered. In that case, move the turtle to the nearest safe spot and wash your hands: some turtles carry salmonella. Above all, do not make a pet of your newly rescued friend! Box turtles generally live 25-35 years but in some cases have been known to live over 100 years. That’s quite a commitment, and an awful lot of birthdays, for even the most devoted animal lover

by Jenny Houghton
Assistant Director

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