Chances are, you’ve probably seen a box turtle, either at a zoo or in a park, backyard or green space. It’s not as if they move quickly. With their short legs, box turtles lumber along and retreat at the first sign of anything unfamiliar. The box turtle pulls its head and legs into the shell and then, in an amazing protection skill, uses the hinged pastron (the bottom part of the shell) to close up behind them forming an impenetrable box. Yep, that’s where the name “box turtle” comes from.
There are four natives species of box turtles in North America: The Eastern Box Turtle, Florida Box Turtle, Gulf Coast Box Turtle and Three-toed Box Turtle. Eastern Box Turtles are found throughout North Carolina, and like most wildlife in an increasingly urban state, are in a vulnerable position.
Habitat loss is a constant threat. The International Union for Conservation of Nature reports that box turtle populations have fallen more than 30 percent since the mid 1900s. That’s upsetting but not surprising. Box turtles are particularly vulnerable to the dangers that come from living close to humans. Moving at a speed measured in feet per hour, turtles a vulnerable to getting hit by cars, injured by lawn equipment, attacked by domestic animals, and picked up by the occasional human who thinks they will make a good pets.
There are many times where people, thinking they are helping the slow moving turtle, actually do more harm than good by picking up the turtle to move it to a safer location. The trouble is that box turtles cannot be relocated. They spend their entire lives—which can span over a hundred years—in one small area and, if moved, they will spend the rest of their life trying to get home, crossing through unfamiliar territory and usually dying in the process.
So to save the important part of the forest ecosystem, follow these turtle tips: NEVER DISTURB, PICK UP, OR MOVE A BOX TURTLE UNLESS IT HAS A VISIBLE INJURY OR IS IN IMMINENT DANGER. If you find a turtle in the road, move it to the other side in the direction it was going. DO NOT ATTEMPT TO RELOCATE IT. Turtles have small home territories and should be left where they are found. Their survival depends on it!
Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on Sci NC, a broadcast and online science series.