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This Week’s Creature Feature: The Eastern Box Turtle

This time of year, they’re on the move

     In deciduous forest areas throughout the eastern U.S., an early spring rain gets eastern box turtles on the move as males start looking for females.
     How do reptiles mate when they’re encased in hinged shells that can close completely and tightly? Mating works because in males the hinged bottom part of the shell, the plastron, is slightly concave. 
     After mating, the female can delay fertilization for years until the conditions are right. In a good late spring, she will lay eggs that hatch in 40 to 60 days. As with several other turtle species, the sex of the hatchlings is determined by the temperature of the incubation site. Hotter incubation creates females.
     To tell the difference between a male and a female box turtle, look at the underside of the shell, as the female plastron is flat rather than concave. Easier still, males have bright red eyes.
     The hatchlings, a little larger than a penny, grow quickly on a diet of mostly insects and worms. As they age, they become omnivores and will eat berries, mushrooms and other plants as well as insects, worms, slugs and any other small animal they can catch.
     Most reptiles continue to grow over their lifetime, with their eventual size limited only by their age. The eastern box turtle seems to be the exception, reaching maximum size by the age of 10. A 10-year-old and a 75-year-old box turtle are about the same size. The life expectancy of a wild turtle is under 30 years, but in captivity they can live over 100 years and still be just eight inches long.
     At any size, the turtle can repair minor injuries to it shell and regrow broken areas in the scutes, the keratin plates that cover the domed top part of the turtle, the carapace.
     Box turtles avoid dry areas. If the shell gets too dry, its scutes crack and peel. So the turtles like to dig into moist dirt, mud and leaves. They are not swimmers but will wade in fresh water occasionally.
  Because of land development and habitat fragmentation, the box turtle population is less than a third of what it was in the 1960s. If you find a turtle in the road, move it to the side of the road that it was moving toward. Do not remove it from its living and breeding habitat. 
     If you have questions or have found an injured turtle, call the Mid-Atlantic Turtle and Tortoise Society: 410-673-9851; www.matts-turtles.org.