Sunday, July 13, 2008

Reptilian Speed Bump

Cruising down a winding country road I detect a small protuberance up ahead on the center stripe and immediately know what I’m seeing- a turtle about to become “street pizza”. Now if you’re like me you’re not going to just pass it by and wish it luck. I’ve saved many a turtle over the years (as well as snakes and frogs) and I wasn’t about to ignore this one. So I pulled over to the shoulder and watched horrified in my rear-view mirror as one-two-three cars sped directly over it. I put on my emergency flashers, checked both ways like my mom taught me, and hurried over to it while getting odd looks from passersby as they blast past me in the opposite lane. Most times it’s a red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans) , mud (Kinosternon subrubrum), or snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina), but this time it was a beautiful box turtle. Due to habitat loss and fragmentation these turtles (like most other animals) are slowly but surely being squeezed out and put into harm’s way. As I reached down to pick it up, legs and head disappear as it withdraws into the confines of its protective shell. This bony armor works well against predators, but it’s no match against a ton of speeding metal. With its hinged plastron (lower shell) shut as tight as a tick I walk over with it to the edge of the road so I could examine it closer. It might be good to mention here that if you come across one in this same situation always place it on the side of the road that it was headed for. If not, it will turn around and head right back into a death trap.

Noting the “keel” that ran down the center of its carapace (upper shell) and the fact that its shell was “flared” along its edges told me it was an Eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina). This one, along with the Ornate (Terrapene ornate) box turtle, are the two native species of box turtle in Texas. The Ornate doesn’t have a keel or the flaring on its shell’s edges. Males of both species have red eyes, a long tail with a thick base, and a plastron that’s somewhat concave. Females have yellow or golden colored eyes, a shorter, thinner tail, and a flat plastron. Unable to see its eyes or tail with its shell slammed shut I had to go by the flat plastron indicating it was a female. She was probably in the process of finding a suitable area to lay her eggs since this is about that time of the year. Zoom in on the photos of both the plastron and the carapace and you’ll notice thin faded rings present on the scutes. These are “growth rings” that can be counted to approximate a turtle’s age. This one is somewhere between 12 and 14 years of old. The life span of a box turtle can reach upwards of 100 years. The hinged area near its head was damaged which could’ve resulted from being gnawed upon by some type of predator such as a coyote, fox, raccoon, skunk or even a feral dog. Still though, whatever it was, it didn’t reach the living organism inside. It is said that their shell has regenerative properties and can repair itself when damaged.

There are many people who rescue turtles, in fact there’s a website appropriately tagged “Turtle Crossings” where you can document reports, photographs and even longitude and latitude coordinates (via gps) of where the turtle crossed. Rescuing turtles requires diligence on your part, as your safety trumps that of the turtle. Not paying attention and becoming mesmerized about reaching it in time could result in you getting splattered. There’s another precaution that should be duly noted when rescuing turtles- when you pick them up be sure to direct their hind end away from yourself otherwise you’ll be surprised when you get christened by a thick jet stream of turtle urine. I’ve found this especially true with red-eared sliders. Just there way of saying “thanks”.


Rose, Francis L. 1986. Carapace regeneration in Terrapene (Chelonia: Testudinidae). The Southwestern Naturalist. 31(1): 131-134. [62090]

Smith, Hobert M. 1958. Total regeneration of the carapace in a box turtle. Turtox News. 36: 234-236. [62091]

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