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Box Turtles

Bayou-Diversity (15 March 2020) That an old, time-marred box turtle in my hand today could be the same one held by my great grandfather on the edge of this swamp a hundred years ago infers a connection mystical if not spiritual. Though unlikely, it is possible.

The most common land turtle found throughout Louisiana is the three-toed box turtle, a subspecies of the eastern box turtle, so named because it usually has three toes on each hind foot. A second species, the ornate box turtle, is very rare and only occurs in the extreme southwestern part of the state. Box turtles have hinged bottom shells (the plastron) that can close tightly against the upper shell (the carapace) for protection. Their high domed shells are about five inches long when mature. Males often have a concave plastron, red eyes, and orange markings on the head and front legs. Females have yellow or dark eyes, duller markings, and a flat plastron.

Most breeding and egg-laying occurs in the summer. Females dig a hole and lay three to eight elliptical, thin-shelled eggs that hatch in about 3 months. Box turtle eggs and hatchlings suffer high mortality rates. It takes 5 to 7 years for the young turtles to become sexually mature. They are omnivorous and eat a variety of plants, insects and other animals including flowers, roots, berries, mushrooms, earthworms, snails, slugs, beetles, and caterpillars. They survive cold winter temperatures by burrowing into the leaf litter and becoming dormant. Their wintering site is called a hibernaculum.

Although they may be found in a variety of habitats, three-toed box turtles are primarily a woodland species. Adults have a home range of 2–5 acres and exhibit high site fidelity, meaning that they don’t roam very far in their lives. If moved by humans they try to return home, an act that often results in their deaths on roads. Other threats include loss or fragmentation of habitat due to development, unnatural fire regimes, and collection for the pet trade. Because of their delayed sexual maturity, low reproductive rate, and high mortality in eggs and young turtles, the loss of a very few adults can cause a population to crash in any given area. However, for those that avoid the hazards, natural and otherwise, they have the innate capacity to live more than a century. I like to imagine the old-timer crossing my driveway and nibbling the mayapple fruits of a late spring morning was also the youngster noticed by my great grandfather on his morning walk to the shallow well to draw a pail of kitchen water a hundred years past. (Adapted from Bayou-Diversity 2: Nature & People in the Louisiana Bayou Country; LSU Press)


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