|by Jim Gass
My wife and I were taking an afternoon hike at one of Mass Audubon’s larger wildlife sanctuaries last fall, and a pleasant but otherwise uneventful walk was about to come to an end. Or so we thought.
Rounding a corner on the return trail, we noticed a small but colorful object slowly making its way across the forest floor. It was an eastern box turtle, a species of tortoise that has become increasingly hard to find in southern New England. It offered no resistance as I picked it up, not even withdrawing into its shell. Perhaps it was used to being handled by hikers over the years and had become tame (box turtles can live to be 100 years old or more). We took a minute to admire the subtle shades of orange and yellow on its shell, then placed it in the woods far off the trail.
This beautiful reptile, ambling unconcernedly through the woods, was one of the few wild box turtles I had ever seen.
Another chance encounter with an even more rare species of turtle happened when I least expected it. We were paddling our favorite river in Rhode Island one July afternoon, and as we turned a bend in the river, noticed a medium-sized turtle sunning itself on the riverbank. At first we thought it was a young snapping turtle. But upon closer inspection we realized it was a wood turtle, an older fellow, the second or third one that I had ever seen. He was half asleep. We took a few pictures, and then left him on the warm mud to finish his nap.
Box and wood turtles are easy to identify if you are lucky enough to find one. Box turtles have a highly domed upper shell (or carapace) about 4-6 inches long, shaped something like a helmet. The bottom shell (plastron) is essentially flat and hinged at both ends, allowing the turtle to close up tightly like a box, the unique trait that gives this species its name. The color of a box turtle’s carapace is variable, but it is usually dark brown to black with yellow or orange blotches. The plastron can be olive, yellow, or orange.
Wood turtles are generally larger than box turtles. Their carapace is about 5-10 inches long, and is varying shades of brown. It’s also more sculpted, having highly ridged plates called “scutes” that resemble little pyramids. The plastron is yellow with black markings. Unlike a box turtle, a wood turtle’s neck and lower forelimbs are bright orange. As with all turtles, the males of both species can be identified by their concave plastrons.
Box turtles are strictly terrestrial. They are found in open woodlands, fields, or meadows, but often turn up near water, especially in hot weather. Their home range is very small, generally 150-750 feet in diameter, and they won’t move much beyond it except to breed. Having said this, relocating or moving a box turtle can kill it, as these slow-moving animals may attempt to cross a busy road in an effort to return home
||adults burrow up to two feet into loose soil, mud or stream bank to hibernate. They re-emerge in early spring.
Box turtles consume a variety of food items. Younger turtles and hatchlings are primarily carnivorous, foraging for earthworms, slugs, snails, and insect larvae. Adults are mostly vegetarian, feeding on leaves, grass, bugs, berries, fruit, and fungi. Blackberries and raspberries are box turtle favorites.
Wood turtles were previously thought to be entirely terrestrial, but recent research suggests that slow-moving rivers and streams with sandy bottoms are equally as important. In fact, wood turtles are excellent swimmers. Often found basking on the banks these waterways, they also sometimes wander through the woods during the summer, perhaps accounting for the original idea that they were terrestrial. In late fall they burrow into undercut banks of wooded rivers to hibernate. Little is known about this species’ home range.
Wood turtles are omnivorous. Grass, moss, berries, fungi, insects, worms, slugs, snails, fish and tadpoles are taken depending on the season. They will feed both in water and on land.
Unfortunately, box and wood turtles are declining in southern New England. In Rhode Island, they are listed as “protected” (P) by the Department of Environmental Management’s Division of Fish and Wildlife, which means that it is illegal to possess one without a permit. Wood turtles are also considered a “species of interest” (SI), meaning that although they are not listed as State Endangered or State Threatened, they occur in only ten or fewer sites throughout the state.
In Massachusetts, both turtles are listed as “species of special concern” (SC). These are “native species which have… suffered a decline that could threaten the species if allowed to continue unchecked, or which occur in such small numbers or with such restricted distribution or specialized habitat requirements that they could easily become threatened within Massachusetts.”
If we are not careful, these beautiful and unique creatures may disappear for good. Slow moving and late to reach sexual maturity, box and wood turtles are no match for a busy highway or a housing development. Because they are popular as pets, local turtle populations are being devastated or completely destroyed by collectors. It may take centuries for their numbers to recover. Clearly, we need to be more aware of how our actions affect these, and other, living things. As Ted Andrews reminds us in his book Animal Speak, “As the turtle cannot separate itself from its shell, neither can we separate what we do to the Earth.”
So if you are lucky enough to come across a box or wood turtle slowly making its way through the woods, admire it for a little while, and then put it back in the wild -- where it belongs.
James Gass is a teacher naturalist for Mass Audubon. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org