I’ve been seeing a lot of box turtles this year. Maybe that's because I’ve been getting out a lot into the rich woodland habitats they prefer. You could possibly encounter one at an elevation as high as 4,000 feet, but most will be found from the lowest elevations up to about 3,000 or so feet.
You have to be patient when observing box turtles. They’re in no hurry. If one feels threatened, it’ll simply pull its head in, close the hinged flap of its lower shell (the plastron) up against its upper shell (the carapace) and disappear for a while.
But sometimes they’ll stop moving without withdrawing. Take a quick look and you can easily tell whether you’ve happened upon a male or a female. Males have reddish eyes; females have brownish-yellow eyes. The male also has a plastron that’s concave, which enables him to mount the carapace of a female during copulation.
The eastern box turtle is the longest-lived vertebrate in North America. If you encounter one that resembles an old bowling ball, with a shell that's more than 4.5 inches long, there's a good chance it’s approaching 50 years of age. Individuals have been known to exceed 120 years.
In an undisturbed habitat, a box turtle may live out its life without ever traveling more than 250 yards from the nest in which it was born. During the active season from April to October, one will customarily settle into a daily range with a diameter of 350 to 700 feet. They will sometimes establish two home ranges — one for cool spring and late summer conditions, the other for hot summer conditions — with a migratory route between.
Box turtles have a strong homing sense. Individuals removed a mile or so from their home territories are usually able to find their way back. Those removed at greater distances will usually head in the right direction, even when they can’t always locate their original territories.
I used to stop and pick box turtles up off of roadways and haul them around in my truck or take them home. After awhile, I’d release them wherever I happened to be, which was often miles from their home territories. But since learning how strongly attached they are to their territories, I now stop and move them off to the side of the road toward which they’re headed and let them go about their business.
Box turtles are not specialists in their eating habits. They'll devour insects, earthworms, strawberries, various fruits, and even carrion. When my wife, Elizabeth, and I gather mushrooms in the fall, we sometimes find specimens with a triangular bite taken out of the cap. In Amphibians and Reptiles of the Carolinas and Virginia (UNC Press, 1989), the authors note that, “Box turtles eat several kinds of poisonous mushrooms ... and cases of poisoning are known in some persons who have eaten these reptiles.” We’re more surprised that “some persons” eat box turtles than by the fact that box turtles sometimes eat poisonous mushrooms.
The box turtle figured prominently in the culture of the early Cherokees, who knew it as “daksi.” Shells were used as dippers and containers, as well as for rattles after pebbles were sealed inside them. Following European contact, the word “daksi” was expanded in meaning to signify “padlock,” an introduced cultural item that appeared to operate something like a box turtle to the Indians.
Editor’s note: This George Ellison column first appeared in a June 2006 issue of The Smoky Mountain News.