Prairie Ridge Ecostation

Eastern Box Turtle

Terrapene carolina

There are several reptiles and amphibians that call the Prairie Ridge grounds home. Black Rat Snake sightings are very common and it’s hard to miss the dozens of Bull and Green Frogs in the pond.  Some reptiles, however, are resident but less commonly observed.  The Eastern Box Turtle is one such species. 

Eastern Box Turtle

Eastern Box Turtles are one of the most widely recognized turtle species in the Eastern US and one of only two species of box turtles in the country.  Their most distinctive characteristic is the tall, dome-shaped carapace (the upper part of the shell) covered with bold markings in browns, yellows, and oranges.  These markings can be used to identify specific turtles and act as a turtle’s “fingerprints.”  The underside of the shell, the plastron, is hinged so that the turtle can pull its entire body inside and close up for protection from predators and other dangers.  Eastern Box Turtles are small turtles, growing from just over an inch to 6-7 inches in length over their long lives.

Eastern Box Turtles are forest dwellers and feed on a wide variety of plants, fungi, and small animals such as insects or slugs.  They are most active in the spring and fall and hide in cool, damp places during hot summer days.  While these turtles typically live on land, you may sometimes see them enter shallow water to cool down on especially hot days or during periods of drought.  They are also very active after rains and are often seen on roads after storms, a hazardous place for turtles where they are at high risk of being struck by cars.  In fact, death by car strike is one of the primary sources of Eastern Box Turtle mortality as they are well protected by their shells and have few natural predators.

As one of the slowest-growing and -reproducing turtle species, Eastern Box Turtles are sensitive to environmental changes and are the focus of several conservation efforts.  In addition to deaths by cars, the turtles face ever increasing habitat loss and fragmentation and have experienced a population decline as a result.  The turtles are also highly desirable pets, leading to the capture of wild turtles for sale in the pet industry.  Eastern Box Turtles have a great homing instinct, so released pets will attempt to try to return to their natal grounds and encounter many dangers along the way.  While the Eastern Box Turtle is one of the most widespread and readily recognizable turtle species, it is at risk of continued population decline and is in need of conservation efforts in some parts of its natural range.

Prairie Ridge is home to several Eastern Box Turtles, though they can be hard to spot.  Look for them in the lowland arboretum or the parking lot after rains or lurking under brush in the forested areas.  You might even see a turtle with a radio tracker on its back!  These turtles are part of research project in collaboration with Washington University in St. Louis to determine the ranges and habitat use of the Eastern Box Turtle in various parts of the country.   Maybe you’ll be lucky enough to spot one on your next visit!

Find out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive.

Photo by Stephen Friedt, used under a Creative Commons license.