Gobbling turkeys, morel mushrooms, trout and … eastern box turtles?
All are signs of spring.
The first three are doing about as well as ever these days. The same can’t be said for turtles, though.
Box turtles – emerging about now from a hibernation-like state known as brumation that began in October or November – are in trouble.
Just how much is the question.
Box turtles emerge from a hibernation-like state each spring.
The eastern box turtle is the most common, widespread land turtle in the eastern United States. They’re found all up and down the Atlantic coast.
Or have been.
But there are some signs they’re struggling.
In Pennsylvania, box turtle numbers are thought to have declined by 11 to 40 percent compared to historic numbers, said Auru Stauffer, wildlife biologist with the state’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. That’s not enough to make them endangered, threatened or even a candidate species.
But they are listed as a “high priority species” in the state’s wildlife action plan.
Others see them the same way.
The Ohio Division of Wildlife labels them a “species of concern.” The Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Institute considers them “vulnerable” across their range.
In North Carolina, the Piedmont Wildlife Center is even tracking turtles with GPS units with an eye toward figuring out how they’re doing and if additional protection is warranted.
One thing is clear, and that’s what’s behind their decline. It’s habitat loss more than anything.
While the pet trade — legal and otherwise — and other issues are concerns, habitat loss trumps them all.
Box turtles – relatively small at about 7 inches in length, usually – are identifiable by their dome-shaped upper shell. Their color varies greatly, but blacks, browns, yellows, oranges and olives are all common. They eat vegetation and berries, as well as bugs and carrion.
The turtles love woodlands, but also do well in wet meadows and flood plains.
It’s just such places, though, that continue to be gobbled up by human encroachment.
“Habitat destruction has led to a decline of eastern box turtles in their former range. Throughout the past century, the conversion of woodlands and wetlands into agricultural land has extirpated populations where they once existed,” reads the Smithsonian’s website.
“The rising demand for the development of suburban areas further exacerbates the decline by fragmenting the populations that are left. Because they are so energetic on land, these animals are often killed by vehicles traveling on roads that cross through their remaining habitats.”
That’s certainly been the case in Pennsylvania. And isolated – and therefore threatened populations – are the result.
“Box turtles are most likely having a hard time in areas where there has been a lot of development pressure such as the suburbs of Philadelphia,” Stauffer said.
“State forests, state parks, state game lands and other park lands have become the last refugia for turtles in these areas. And if a park is surrounded by roads or development, the populations become isolated and will eventually die out.”
It’s hard to pin down just what might be considered a “good” number of turtles in an area. They’re not like white-tailed deer, which can be managed on a deer-per-square-mile basis, Stauffer said.
Box turtles are long-lived – surviving 50 years or longer, sometimes decades longer – and slow to reproduce.
So scientists try to keep tabs on how they’re doing compared to the past and maintain the status quo. That’s the best outcome for the animals, which have a role to play in nature as part of a complex ecosystem, Stauffer said.
“One goal … is to keep common species common by determining which species are at the greatest risk of imperilment. The idea is to prevent further declines,” Stauffer said.
Time will tell how that’s working. But for now, keep an eye out for these long-lived specimens.
The one you find may have been roaming those woods long before you were born.
Box turtles, conservation and sightings
Why did the chicken cross the road?
That’s a mystery.
But what about turtles? What’s their motivation?
Eastern box turtles frequently cross roads in spring. Typically, they’re moving from where they’ve spent winter to where they will reproduce and spend their summers. Some get killed in the attempt; others are moved by well-meaning motorists.
Sometimes, that help does more harm than good.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service offers some advice on what to do.
In the meantime, if you spot eastern box turtles, scientists would like to know.
The Northeast Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation has put together a list of just who to contact to report sightings.
In Pennsylvania in particular, sightings can also be reported to the Pennsylvania Amphibian and Reptile Survey.
And if you’ve got a pet turtle at home that you no longer can or want to take care of?
Don’t turn it loose in the wild. That can kill that individual animal or e=introduce disease into wild populations. Instead, find them a new home through organizations like Forgotten Friend Reptile Sanctuary.