North Carolina Newspapers

    Eyes on the Road...
Turtles Crossing
By Frederick Boyce
Spring is a favorite time for most creatures, human and otherwise, and while most
anyone can certainly enjoy the sunshine and warmer temperatures, spring holds
special joys for those who love animals and nature. This is when the world comes alive
again—when the migratory birds and butterflies return (and the migratory humans),
and all the things that have been asleep all winter are waking up and starting to bloom
and bud or move around. It is the time I long for each year as my reward for patiently
enduring another dreary winter devoid of turtles, snakes and lizards. Sadly, however,
the joy that I experience is increasingly tempered by the dreadful and depressing
certainty that I am bound to see many of my favorite creatures being crushed and
mangled on our roadways, each one representing another notch down in what are
already declining populations, especially here in the increasingly crowded confines of
Bogue Banks.
There is no question that most reptiles are getting more difficult to find in the
county, and next to habitat loss, road mortality takes the greatest toll. One animal
that is especially and perilously conspicuous on the roadways each spring and fall
is our official state reptile, the eastern box turtle, Terrapene Carolina Carolina. These
terrestrial relatives of the common pond sliders of local waterways can be extremely
colorful (especially the males), and are about the size of a softball. They have rather
grumpy and antisocial dispositions and much prefer to be left to themselves, but are
shy and inoffensive creatures whose main defense is to withdraw entirely into their
shells, which they are able to close up tightly like a box (hence the name) with the
aid of a flexible, fleshy hinge that divides the lower shell (the plastron). The upper
shell is tall and domed, and not flattened as it is with aquatic turtles, helping to better
conserve water on land. It is structurally much stronger as well, such that these land
turtles are better able to withstand the pressure of being stepped on by a large animal.
This time-tested design, however, which has served these hardy turtles well for
some 15 million years, offers virtually no protection from the ubiquitous brainchild
of Henry Ford., It is a sad thing to see a crushed box turtle in the road. These erstwhile
sturdy little animals can easily live 50 years or more, a life-span comparable to
a humans, and there are credible instances of their having lived for more than a
century. A well-known female from the West Tisbury woods of Marthas Vineyard
had dates from 1861,1881,1932 and 1955 carved into her shell. This turtle was
seen and photographed as recently as 2006 and was the subject of two articles in the
Vineyard Gazette, one in 1989 and an earlier one in 1932 that included an interview
with the man who had carved the 1881 initials when he was a boy 14 years of age. His
family had known two of the young men who had carved their initials in 1861, just
before going off to die in the Civil War. Box turtle shells are living, feeling tissue made
of bone overlaid with a thin veneer of semi-translucent scutes (dermal bony plates)
made of keratin, the same protein that comprises our fingernails, and carving into
them would be a painful and cruel thing to do, but people did not know any better in
those days.
Box turtles can be found in woodlands across all of North Carolina, from the
mountains to the sea, so they are indeed a fitting choice for the NC State Reptile,
but their populations are steadily declining. Eastern box turtles are highly variable,
typically being some combination of yellow, white, black and brown, but some
flamboyant specimens will have lots of orange or red. Males often, but not always,
have red eyes, while the eyes of females tend to be brown, and males will usually
be larger and more elongated in shape, with the rear edge of the shell being flared.
Females normally have shorter, rounder shells. The lower shells of the males are
deeply concave, which helps a lot during breeding (think about it), while the females
have flat bellies, providing more room for eggs.
Although small and attractive to people, box turtles do have a fierce and
determined sort of dignity and really do not like being picked up, so I try to avoid
doing so unless it is absolutely necessary. If you spot one crossing the road, you
can help by stopping your car while it crosses. What are a few minutes of impatient
screaming and honking from other motorists when we are talking about an animal
that could live for more than 100 years? Besides, this is the beach and no one should
be in a hurry anyway. If you think the turtle needs some help crossing, place it as far
off the road as possible on the side toward which it was moving. Check it carefully for
injuries, and if you see blood or other signs of injury, the turtle should be immediately
taken to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter (OWLS) off of Highway 24 at 100 Wildlife
Way in Newport (phone: 240-1200). Be sure to note the exact location so they can
release it later. Box turtles occupy a small home range and will not survive if moved
more than a mile away from where they were found. Do not take them home unless
you have no plans for the next 50 to 100 years or so, but you can encourage their
presence by leaving some unmowed natural areas with native plants (they love
blackberries) in your yard, and a compost pile with lots of veggie scraps, such as
watermelon' rind, strawberries and tomatoes, which will be greatly appreciated. They
will also take cover and even overwinter under large piles of leaves or brush.
The Carolina Herp Atlas (carolinaherpatlas.com) is an online database available for
anyone to log their box turtle and other reptile or amphibian sightings. Photographs,
location information, and other details that you include are then available for
biologists to view and monitor. Another good resource for general information is
boxturtles.com.
Sources for this article: “Field Observations of North Americas Eastern Box Turtle
{Terrapene Carolina -Carolina)” by William Belzer, Box Turtle Conservation Trust and
ncwildlife.org/portals/0/Learning/documents/Profiles/Eastern_Box_Turtle.pdf.
Frederick Boyce is the staff herpetologist at the NC Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores.
Above: A male box turtle relaxes on his “front porch” in a forest Down East. Below:
Boxed up tight—box turtles can enclose themselves in their shells more complete
ly than any other turtle. Note the hinge where the two halves of the lower shell
come together.—Photos by Fred Boyce
The Shoreline I April 2018
    

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