I have to admit of the entire animal kingdom, reptiles are my least favorite except for turtles. Turtles aren’t sleek and fast like a cheetah, they aren’t furry or cute like a panda, and they aren’t fierce predators like a wolf. They are slow and steadfast. Changing very little since the time of the dinosaurs, they are survivors.
Indiana has 18 native species and subspecies of turtles. Most spend their time in the shallow waters along rivers and ponds. One stands out among them, the Eastern Box Turtle. It is terrestrial, one of the few that lives mainly on land. Found from southern Maine to Georgia, its numbers are in decline in the Midwest.
The Eastern Box Turtle, or Terrapin carolina, is a small to medium turtle, just 5-6 inches long as an adult. The top shell, or carapace, is brown with decorative yellow markings. These markings get bigger as it ages. The shell also has plates or scutes. Each year a box turtle gets a new ring on its scutes.
You can’t quite tell the age of a box turtle by its rings like a tree, but it does give you a clue. Eastern Box turtles are slow to mature and long-lived. They are able to reproduce in approximately 8-10 years, are fully grown at 20 years and can live to at least 50 years of age in the wild. There is some evidence they may live to 120!
The underside of the box turtle is the plastron. Box turtles have hinges on their plastron, allowing the turtle to “box” itself in for protection. A turtle’s shell is permanent, its backbone and ribs are attached.
They live in woods, fields, pastures, and on the edge of wetlands. Cold-blooded animals, turtles rely on their environment to warm or cool themselves. On cool days they can be seen basking in the sun to warm up. On hot days they like to soak at the edges of streams or ponds or hide under a log or leaves.
Eastern Box Turtles are omnivorous, while they have a horny beak, they don’t have any teeth. They like to eat plants, flowers, berries, mushrooms, slugs, worms, and insects.
In Indiana they hibernate during colder months, burrowing in sandy stream bottoms, or beneath the ground in animal burrows. In May, the female will dig a nest several inches below the soil and lay 2-8 eggs. Following an incubation period of a couple months, one-inch hatchlings will emerge. Like other reptiles, the sex of the eggs is determined by the soil temperature, warmer temps lead to female eggs, and cooler temps create males.
Once very common, Eastern Box Turtles are declining in the Midwest. Few eggs survive predation by raccoons, skunks, snakes, and foxes. Habitat destruction, roadway kills, and collection for pets are also threats to their survival. Since 2004, it is illegal to buy, sell, or remove an Eastern Box Turtle from the wild in Indiana.
Eastern Box Turtles do not cover much ground, most live within a few acres of where they are born. They have a homing beacon which helps them return. A Native American symbol for mother earth, long life, and perseverance, please give them a hand across the road in the same direction they are headed and consider yourself fortunate for seeing one.