Imagine your body is 10 times larger than your limbs. Each of your four legs is short, thick, round, and tipped with long, narrow claws. Your body doubles as your home, carried everywhere. In fact, your spine is fused to this hard, dome-shaped shell. You can withdraw your legs and neck into the shell, but that’s all. Contrary to some beliefs, you cannot crawl out of your shell.
You live on the forest floor, and your short legs mean you move slowly and with difficulty, navigating obstacles such as rocks and fallen tree branches. However, you differ from other critters that resemble you. While they live in water and swim effortlessly, you are distinctly a slow, land-based creature.
I don’t think you had trouble deducing from these clues that the critter is a turtle. However, did you figure out I was referring to the Eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina)? In many areas, the box turtle is the only land-based or terrestrial turtle species. It is not a species of tortoise, which is often considered the best-known land-based turtle-like species. If you’re a bit confused right now, let me clarify that there are significant differences between turtles and tortoises. We’ll focus on the land-based turtle, the Eastern box turtle.
The box turtle has a high-domed upper shell called the carapace. It is often highly ornamented with a different pattern, often in a dull yellow color. The bottom shell, called the plastron, is hinged at the front and back portions. This hinged area allows the turtle to withdraw into the shell and close up tight like a box, hence the common name of these animals. This is different from the aquatic turtles that can withdraw their legs and neck but aren’t able to close up their shell.
The skin on the legs, neck and head is brown or black with yellow, orange, red, and sometimes white spots and streaks. Males have bright red eyes, and females have brown eyes. A turtle’s shell is made of bone, which is covered by vascularized tissue (living), which is then covered by a thin layer of keratin, which is similar to our fingernails. These three layers make up the shell of the turtle. As the turtle grows, it sheds the outer layer, similar to how we shed our own skin, to make room for the larger layers below.
So, why would I be writing about an Eastern box turtle in the middle of winter? The other day, I was asked about how these turtles survive winter. And this is where things get very interesting. Each fall, the Eastern box turtle will burrow as deep as possible into the ground under the leaves and soils on the forest floor. At this point, they enter a state of inactivity that is like hibernation, but technically, it is not hibernation. When reptiles, like turtles, cool down for winter, it is called brumation or torpor. It allows the turtle to survive without food or drink for long periods. The word brumation usually refers to reptiles and describes their winter dormancy.
These turtles occur as far north as Maine on the East Coast and Michigan in the central part of the country. So, you can imagine the turtles in these regions need to brumate for long periods of time and must survive temperatures well below zero. This is what I find so amazing about these critters.
Box turtles have high home territory fidelity and often stay in the same home range for their entire lives. And speaking of their entire lives, these turtles can live upwards of 30 years. However, in the wild, these turtles face many obstacles which dramatically shorten their life spans. The most pressing of these issues is the loss of habitat. Building roads and houses forces the turtles into smaller and smaller areas. In addition, the more roads, the greater the chance they will be hit by cars. No doubt, the changing climate, along with its associated weather extremes, will also represent a major challenge for these turtles.
Another huge challenge and one of my biggest pet peeves is the removal, or, as I like to say, kidnapping, of turtles from the wild and selling them as pets, which represents the biggest threat to the wild population. This directly depletes the population and is also highly illegal, but it still seems to be a very large problem.
This winter take a minute to think about all the reptiles and amphibians that are in brumation on the forest floor of your local woodland and consider just how amazing these little critters are. Until next time …
Editor’s note: Stan Tekiela’s NatureSmart column appears twice a month in the Eden Prairie Local News. Tekiela is an author, naturalist, and wildlife photographer who travels extensively across the United States to study and capture wildlife images.
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