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Saving the American Box Turtle: Why They are Rare in the Wild and What You Can Do to Help
Veterinary & Aquatic Services Department, Drs. Foster & Smith
Turtles - Tortoises & Terrapins
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The American Box Turtle is one of the most highly recognized and loved turtles in North America. However, due to a loss of natural environment, an increase in roads, and indiscriminate gathering of these native turtles, they are becoming increasingly rare in the wild. Studies done over the last 50 years have shown a steady decline in the population of the American Box Turtle. Because of the dramatic decline and the extreme vulnerability of this species, they have been protected from international trade by the 1994 CITES treaty. In addition, many states have individual legislation protecting and strictly prohibiting the collection of any species of the American Box Turtle. This article will help explore the problems and possible remedies associated with their decline and hopeful recovery.

The plight of the American Box Turtle is one in which I have directly contributed. As a child, we often had several of these turtles in a small enclosure in our backyard. These small, docile turtles were usually found by myself or given to us by a family member that found them while they walked in the area woodlands. Their main function was to provide us with contestants for the neighborhood turtle races. Your prospective turtle would be identified with a number painted or taped to its shell and then placed in the center of a circle drawn with chalk on the concrete. The turtle that crossed the circle first was the winner. We provided the turtles with over-ripe vegetables from the garden or worms that we dug up. In the fall, we would usually take them to my grandpa's farm or the local park and turn them loose. The following summer, the process would repeat itself.

When I walk those same woodlands and fields today, I never see turtles anymore. Over the past twenty-five years, they have all but disappeared from that rural county in central Illinois. My grandfather and neighboring farmers all comment on their similar findings. The disappearance of American Box Turtles is a common problem in many counties throughout the United States, most likely from the same circumstances that I experienced. Looking back, I now realize that well-intentioned, but misinformed people like myself have greatly contributed to the demise of this simple creature.

The American Box Turtle is made up of four different species; carolina, ornata, nelsoni, and coahuila. Of these four species, only two are commonly found and include ornata (Western Box Turtle) and carolina of which there are six subspecies, four of which are common in the U.S. These subspecies include carolina carolina (Common Eastern Box Turtle), carolina trunguis (Three Toed Box Turtle), carolina major (Gulf Coast Box Turtle), and carolina baurie (Florida Box Turtle).

The Common Eastern Box Turtle is found from Maine to Georgia and westward to Michigan, Illinois, and Tennessee. The Three Toed Box Turtle is found from Texas and Alabama northward to Missouri. The Gulf Coast Box Turtle is found in Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, and western Florida. The Florida Box Turtle is found exclusively in Florida. The Western Ornate Box Turtle is found throughout the grasslands of South Dakota through Illinois and southward to Arizona and Texas.

There are several characteristics about the American Box Turtle that make it particularly vulnerable to development and wild harvest for the pet trade.

  • Box turtles have a small home range. Research indicates that they cannot detect mates at a distance. They therefore rely on a high population density in a small area for the incidental encounters needed for breeding and sustaining their population.

  • One 10-year study of a population with a density of 12 turtles per acre found that the population was too small and unstable to avoid a steady decline to extinction. Most population counts show that most densities are now well below that.

  • Box turtles can live to be 100 years or older. Many older animals are not sexually reproductive and their presence in a population can further misrepresent the density of a viable population. Despite the long life of some turtles, very few turtles, ever reach old age due to high predation or environmental causes.

  • Box turtles do not migrate to new locations in significant numbers to replenish habitats that have lost them.

  • Many turtles are killed by the development of new roads or increased traffic on existing roads.

Turtles that are collected and then released also suffer a greatly increased risk of mortality because they have a very strong homing instinct and will try to return to their home territory. While traveling through unfamiliar terrain most are killed on roads or by predation. In addition, wild turtles that are held in captivity and then released, are much more likely to harbor disease and risk spreading that disease to wild populations.

The future of the American Box Turtle in the wild remains perilous, but there are things we can do to help. As pet owners, we can insist that wild box turtles are never removed from their native habitat. Because the vast majority of American Box Turtles in the pet trade are harvested from the wild, we can resist the desire to purchase or support the sale of these turtles. If we currently own an American Box Turtle and are interested in releasing it in the wild, we should be aware of the high risk of mortality and spread of disease associated with releasing it in an unfamiliar place, and should seek out a turtle recovery shelter or rescue. As current owners of American Box Turtles, you can support future laws protecting this species of turtle, as well as conservation efforts targeted at increasing habitat and public awareness.

Most people that own turtles do so because they love turtles. The American Box Turtle has become a victim of development and well-intentioned people that did not understand the implications of removing this fragile species from the wild. I am confident that the people that care the most about these turtles will work together to help protect them in the future, so that all young people will have the pleasure of seeing one of these splendid creatures in its native habitat in the wild.

 
 
References and Further Reading

Ackerman, L. The Biology, Husbandry and Healthcare of Reptiles Volume 2. T.F.H. Publications. Neptune City, NJ; 1997.

Highfield, A.C. Keeping and Breeding Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles. Carapace Press, London; 1996. 

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