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Stop #29: Bankhead National Forest, AL
Featured Herp: Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina)

box turtle hatchling and eggs adult with fire scar
Box turtle (Terrapene carolina) Hatchling box turtles Fire-scarred adult

by Whit Gibbons
November 1998

Ecological research is conducted everywhere -- in swamps, on mountains, beneath the ocean. But one study supports the idea that some fascinating biological behavior can be happening right in our own backyards.

I. Lehr Brisbin of the University of Georgia's Savannah River Ecology Laboratory tells it this way:

"The old saying notwithstanding, familiarity does not always breed contempt. In at least one case, public awareness of a wildlife study provides an opportunity to spread into peoples’ daily lives a conservation message about a potentially threatened species. The work involves using miniature radio transmitters to study the movements and behavior of common box turtles living in an established suburban neighborhood and an adjoining forest park preserve, Hitchcock Woods of Aiken, South Carolina.

southeastern distribution

"Scarcely any youth growing up in the eastern United States has not at one time or another brought one of these once common turtles home to become a pet or been with someone who a stopped a car to help one of these hapless creatures off the highway. Their seemingly blind lumbering across the road in the path of oncoming traffic always caused me to wonder how they ever had the smarts to survive for hundreds of years—since the age of the dinosaurs!

"Recently, however, this well-known creature was placed on the federal list of potentially threatened species. Clearly, more basic biological information must be gathered to explain their alarming declines in numbers in recent years.

"The capture and overseas shipping of large numbers of box turtles as part of an ever-expanding pet trade has certainly contributed to the decline. But impacts of the ever-present threats posed by highway deaths and increasing expansion of housing developments into their woodland habitats is not yet known. Age can be determined in many turtles by counting growth rings on their shells, and some turtles we find in suburban areas are older than the housing developments in which they live. The use of backyards and flowerbeds by turtles in such neighborhoods may actually represent their determination to return to previously wooded habitats they frequented in their youth.

Adult with radiotransmitter attached

"After a decade of study and around a thousand sightings of 21 neighborhood box turtles, certain findings began to emerge. We expected to find that road kills were a common cause of death in turtles living in these neighborhoods but, surprisingly, our radiotracking studies revealed previously unsuspected threats might actually pose greater hazards to turtles in suburban areas. For example, turtle-friendly home-owners accidentally killed some turtles by burning piles of leaves and yard-rakings where turtles had hidden themselves. Death beneath whirling blades of power mowers cutting overgrown lawns and drowning in backyard goldfish pools with no climb-out ramps also resulted in the unintended deaths of some radiotagged turtles. In contrast, some of the turtles appeared to be aware of the danger inherent in crossing suburban streets. In one striking instance, a particular turtle was observed to pace up and down a street curb for nearly 24 hours before making a decision to ‘race’ across the street in only 90 seconds! Such information has made both scientists and homeowners living in these turtles’ neighborhoods acutely aware of how complex the issues are that determine the life or death of individual turtles and ultimately the survival of all box turtles in the developed world.

Tagged hatchling that will be tracked after emergence from the nest
>See summary of study results

"A powerful conservation message is delivered on a very personal level to homeowners who share their neighborhoods with turtles. We may become complacent about threats of the survival of species such as pandas, gorillas and tigers living in distant regions, but can we ignore or fail to be moved by the plight of a familiar and well-known creature sharing our own backyard? In addition, as a favorite subject of local science fair projects, observations of the secret lives and complex behavior of these radiotagged box turtles carry a unique conservation message to a new generation of future suburban homeowners. The fate and ultimate survival of many native wildlife species will ultimately depend on the compassion and understanding of the younger generation. The neighborhood box turtle may well become an important flagship for wildlife conservation concerns for the 21st century."

>Download Box Turtle Fact Sheet (PDF)

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