WNC Nature Center Notes: Eastern Box Turtles
You may not think of eastern box turtles when asked about reptiles inhabiting Western North Carolina, but they deserve to be at the top of the list. This small, distinguished turtle is seen frequently in fields, forested areas and neighborhoods throughout North Carolina from the coast to elevations around 6,000 feet. The eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina) was designated as North Carolina’s state reptile in 1979 because it was “the ultimate example of patience and North Carolina’s unrelenting pursuit of goals.” Although box turtles can live more than 100 years under human care, they are shorter-lived in the wild. Due to habitat destruction, roadway accidents, the pet trade and predation by domestic and wild animals, the eastern box turtle is now listed as a species that is vulnerable to extinction.
The box turtle possesses a few unique adaptations to help it survive in the wild, most notably their ability to completely “close up” their shell. The front and back of the lower half, or plastron, are connected by a sort of natural hinge. When threatened, the turtle can close its shell by lifting their hinged plastron to rest against their shell’s upper dome (carapace), effectively sealing the soft body in armor, forming the “box” they are named for.
Although box turtles are known to spend nearly their entire lives on land, they are not considered tortoises. Rather, they belong to the American pond turtle family (Emydidae), marking them as the only terrestrial species of the pond turtle family. As opportunistic omnivores, box turtles will consume anything from small mammals to toxic mushrooms. Though they have a hefty appetite, a box turtle’s metabolism can be actively repressed in times of food shortage or other unfavorable conditions by simply reducing their activity and retreating into their shell.
Despite challenging circumstances, box turtles are still a pretty common sight for now and are most often seen during the day as they attempt to cross over hot asphalt roads. If you happen to see a turtle in the road, first make sure you are safe to pull over to assist its travel. If the coast is clear, pick up the turtle gently around the stomach area of their shell while minding their sharp claws. Gently move the turtle in the direction it was heading, to safety. Turtles are very territorial and spend their whole lives within a one-mile radius, so if you remove them from their range, they may spend the rest of their life trying to return home.
Learn more at https://wildwnc.org.