Walls: The decline of the box turtle

 

Posted: Tuesday, March 6, 2012 2:32 pm | Updated: 3:42 pm, Tue Mar 6, 2012.

The signs of spring are starting to show themselves as the days grow longer and warmer. However, some of the signs of spring that used to welcome the season of re-growth are disturbingly less evident.

It wasn’t that long ago when box turtles used to announce the arrival of this new season. On a warm day in March, April and May, it wasn’t unusual to see a half dozen or so of these colorful little reptiles on and along a country road or, sometimes, even in the middle of the city — especially on days when a spring rain shower would dampen the ground.

Then it was possible to see upwards of a dozen of these miniature tanks slowly plodding along on the ground in search of food or a mate. Unfortunately, as with many of our native animals, the times have changed.

Now, it is the norm to see only two or three box turtles out and about in a good spring season. Some springs, even less are observed. What has happened?

There are many factors believed to be negatively impacting the box turtle, including the abundance and spread of the imported red fire ant from South America. Fire ants kill and feed on anything on, below or sometimes even above the ground. They are a true scourge to our native wildlife.

Another suspected factor is loss of habitat. Box turtles in our area usually prefer moist, undisturbed plots of land. Many land owners tend to drain their land for timber, agriculture or development. There just isn’t enough proper habitat left to support solid box turtle populations.

Although I do not have specifics, we can only wonder if the other creatures in the box turtles’ diet are declining in numbers and less food is available for box turtles to eat. The food chain links all creatures together. One tug on the chain effects all creatures in the chain; they are all connected.

Is the decline attributable to pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals introduced into the box turtle’s environment? Is it due to a pathogenic disease among the turtles?

If you are lucky enough to observe a box turtle crawling about, please do not take it home with you. Box turtles are believed to be territorial and will try to travel back to their home territory if removed from it.

Sure, you can help them across the road safely to avoid being killed by a vehicle, but leave them in the area that they were found.

Male box turtles tend to have brighter colored heads and red eyes. They also have a curved, indented plastron (lower shell) as opposed to females.

Box turtles are omnivores, feeding on a variety of fruits, berries, insects, worms and even baby rodents such as mice. They also are long-lived. Some scientists believe they can live to be about 50 years old.

If you are fortunate enough to see a box turtle out and about this spring, consider yourself lucky. It will be a real shame if your children or grandchildren do not have the same opportunity.

Enjoy your nature trails.

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