I found my first one of 2018 in early April — a three-toed box turtle trying to make its way across a busy rural highway. The poor reptile was having a difficult time. Frightened by the vehicles buzzing past it, it had pulled its head and legs entirely into its protective shell.
Fortunately, no one ran over the hapless creature, and when I saw it, I did what I always do. I pulled my truck to a safe spot on the shoulder, then went back and carried the turtle to the side of the road where it was headed. I placed it on the ground well away from the highway and watched until it felt safe enough to come out of its shell and shuffle away.
I’m sure many of you have a similar fondness for box turtles. Here in Arkansas, we learn at a young age that these common creatures are harmless and easy to catch. They rarely snap, hiss or bite like many other turtles, so children are often allowed to keep one as a pet for a few hours or days. Box turtles will quickly eat a meal of fresh tomatoes, cantaloupe or earthworms, and after we’ve enjoyed observing them for a while, they can be released unharmed back where they were found.
One of my earliest childhood memories is of my father helping box turtles across the road the way I now do. And the turtles he allowed me to keep as pets helped galvanize my interest in wildlife of all sorts, which led to my early career as a state-parks naturalist.
My early interest also allowed me to learn a great deal about these “terrapins” so I might share that knowledge with you. Did you know, for example, that Arkansas is home to not one, but two, species of box turtles?
The more common species, the three-toed box turtle, usually has three toes (occasionally four) on each hind foot. The turtle is brightly colored when young, but the upper and lower shells usually change to a drab olive-tan color on adults. One might see three-toeds in any of our 75 counties from early April to late October, when they are active.
Ornate box turtles, as their name suggests, have rich decorative colors and patterns, with bright yellow lines radiating across the dark upper and lower shells of both young and old specimens. Four toes are usually present on each hind foot.
This species is much more restricted in its distribution and abundance. It prefers prairie and grassland habitat, little of which is left in our state. Most records of ornate box turtles’ presence have come from a few northwestern and central counties.
The Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission states that ornate box turtles are very rare and subject to extinction here. For that reason, state law prohibits keeping them as pets.
Now that you’ve had that introduction to the two species, here are some more interesting facts about box turtles you may not have heard.
Box turtles are so named because each adult has a crosswise belly-hinge, allowing the turtle to shut its shell tight like a box after pulling in its head and legs. In this manner, all the soft body parts of the slow-moving turtles are protected by a layer of hard shell.
The turtles’ shells do their jobs remarkably well. These reptiles often survive being hit by cars, mowed by bush hogs, trampled by cattle and crushed by farm implements. If you study them long enough, someday you’ll probably find one with a deformed shell that has healed after serving its protective purpose.
Living to a ripe old age
Those protective shells help box turtles live long lives. Herpetologists have learned that three-toeds often survive 60 to 70 years, and there are a few records of centenarians. That makes them among the longest-lived wild animals in Arkansas. Ornate box turtles regularly reach 30 to 40 years of age.
Home sweet home
Each turtle may live its entire long life on a tract of land no more than a few acres in size. That’s why it’s important to always release three-toed box turtles kept as pets back where you found them. They have excellent homing instincts and will try to return to the territory they are familiar with.
When I was a naturalist at Village Creek State Park near Wynne, I helped the assistant superintendent mark the three-toed box turtles we found with a special engraving tool. We recorded the unique numbers inscribed on each turtle, where the animal was found, its size and sex, and where it was released. Several of those turtles were recaptured by park guests after 10 years or more. One was found after more than 30 years. It was caught within 100 yards of its original release site.
Male or female?
Want to know if the box turtle you have is a mama turtle or daddy turtle? A look at the eyes should tell you. In both species, males usually have colorful red eyes, and the eyes of females are a duller brown or yellowish-brown.
Where are the babies?
Box turtles hatch from clutches of one to seven small eggs the female lays in a jug-shaped hole she excavates with her hind feet. The hatchlings are just a little more than an inch long. It is rare, however, to come across one of these very young box turtles. Why? Because these well-camouflaged babies spend the first several years of their lives hiding beneath leaves, grass and other ground cover. The hinges on their tiny shells don’t become functional until the turtles mature, so the little boxies are at greater risk of being eaten. For this reason, they instinctively stay concealed where predators, and humans, overlook them.
Getting right side up
As mentioned, long claws aid female box turtles in digging their nests. Males also have them to help dig up grubs, worms, salamanders and other small animals that supplement a diet of mushrooms, berries and other plant material.
The claws also prove helpful when some mischance causes the animal to “turn turtle.” Extending its neck and reaching backward over its shell, the turtle is usually able to hook its claws into the ground and quickly right itself.
Researchers studying box turtles often have a hard time finding substantial numbers of these secretive, well-camouflaged creatures. That didn’t stop Charles and Elizabeth Schwartz in their efforts to study three-toed box turtles in The Show-Me State. These Missouri Department of Conservation naturalists captured more than 3,000 box turtles using Labrador retrievers trained especially for that purpose. With the dogs’ help, the Schwartzes learned a great deal about the habitat use, home range and population characteristics of turtles inhabiting the couple’s land near Jefferson City from 1965 to 1983. Much of the information presented here is from their studies.
I am sorry that I did not conduct a similar turtle study in my boyhood. I had a wonderful mongrel dog named Wolf who discovered countless box turtles he brought into our yard and placed at my feet. I never could teach him to fetch the newspaper, but his interest in box turtles was endless. I had no idea his talent for finding and catching turtles might actually be useful.