I feel like Aladdin calling on the Magic Lamp as I walk along the banks of the Colorado River—miracles almost always happen! Recently I stumbled upon a Texas treasure. On any other occasion, he would have been invisible on the ground—melted into the permanent background of grasses, rocks, and sunlight. But on this day, among cones of sunlight cast upon the ground, my new friend sparkled like a star in the grass, ponderously making his way toward the river. Perhaps he needed shade or water but regardless, he was intent on the business of getting where he was going. As I bent down for a closer look, he realized the situation had suddenly changed, and my presence drenched him like a freezing rain—he disappeared into his shell like a scared oyster. I can’t remember the last time I saw a box turtle! I named him “Twinkle.”
Like a star up in the heavens, Twinkle stood out. About 5 inches long, his shell had varying orangey-yellow lines and spots; he had a short stubby tail, elephant-like legs, and un-webbed feet. After tucking in his head and legs, he looked like a small, ceremonial army helmet. He was so handsome that my younger self would have probably taken him home as a pet (more on that later). Meanwhile, my little pal remained as hard and silent as a dug-up tree root—it was clear I was not welcome in his world. I placed him back in the grass, pointed him in the direction I found him, and took my leave (I’m guessing there was nothing in the world he would have more willingly given). After returning home, I discovered he was appropriately classified as an “ornate” box turtle.
In doing my research, I learned that box turtles get their name from the way they close themselves off to the world when threatened—just as my dome-shaped friend had done. Unlike other turtles whose upper and lower shells are connected by a boney bridge, box turtles have a high, rounded upper shell connected to a flattened bottom by a tough ligamentous material and a trap-door type hinge at the front. This arrangement gives box turtles enough room to pull in all critical body parts to shut and lock themselves up tight like a box.
Interestingly, you can usually tell the sex of a box turtle by its eyes: mature males have bright red eyes and red to orange scales on their hind legs. Females, as well as juvenile males, have yellow eyes and leg scales. For further confirmation, the bottom of the male shell is curved to better fit the top portion of the female shell when mating. The female’s bottom shell is flat.
Box turtles are hard to find in Texas. In the searing summer heat, they usually restrict activity to the wee hours of dusk or dawn, and the cool months of the year. Occasional hard downpours can also bring them out. In addition, box turtles must live close to water which confines their options in Texas. Notice I did not say they live in the water. The only known aquatic species of box turtle in North America is the Coahuilan/Aquatic Box Turtle of. . . you guessed it. . .Coahuila, Mexico. All the rest are steadfastly terrestrial. So much so in fact, they can drown in water deeper than their shell.
Even though they live their entire life on land, box turtles are not tortoises. Classified under the wider family of pond turtles (Emydidae), they belong to the genus Terrapene. There are 7 species of box turtles in North America but, unlike Californians, most don’t find Texas to their liking. There are, however, 2 Terrapene species that didn’t get the memo: the eastern box turtle and the ornate box turtle. Our eastern box turtle is really a subspecies (three-toed box turtle), while our ornate splits into 2 subspecies (one also called ornate, the namesake, and the desert box turtle).
The 3-toed box turtle (Terrapene triunguis) is the largest of the Texas varieties, and it normally has 3 toes on its back feet rather than the standard 4. Its shell and skin are drab, mostly uniform brown or tan in color. It tends to hang out in east Texas. The desert box turtle (Terrapene ornata luteola) is the less flashy of the ornate subspecies and has a more uniformly grayish-brown shell. Desert box turtles like the southwest parts of the state. Ornate box turtles (Terrapene ornata ornata) enjoy a more statewide distribution. The ornate and desert box turtle are the smaller of the 3 with somewhat flatter shells.
The life of a box turtle moves at a slow pace even though lifespan can reach 50 years or more. Partly this is due to a slower metabolism, a mostly vegetable diet, swearing off alcohol, and refraining from running around with wild women. But mainly, it’s because box turtles are the discreet stay-at-home type. They prefer a very small home range. Taking them out of their territory and depositing them somewhere else
causes them stress (they constantly search for their home grounds). You should always leave a box turtle near the same place you find it. TPWD tracks box turtle sightings through their Nature Trackers Program. You can help by completing the form at www.tpwd.state.tx.us/boxturtles when you have an encounter. A common dilemma is what to do if you see a box turtle crossing a roadway. Pull your car to the shoulder, put on your flashers and, when it’s clear, take the turtle out of the roadway and move it to safety on the side in the direction it was traveling.
Other aspects of the box turtle’s life are unhurried too. For example, they take between five and ten years to reach sexual maturity, and they produce relatively few offspring, generally laying eggs only once a year. After mating, a female can store the sperm in her oviducts to produce fertilized eggs for up to 4 years later—sort of an “on demand” vending machine that keeps the species going when male partners are scarce. Hatchlings need protein, so they are meat eaters (slugs, worms, insects, bird eggs) until age 5 or 6. Baby turtles receive no parenting and are most vulnerable to predation when young. This is a dangerous time for young turtles because they don’t develop the hinge for closing into their shells until they reach 4-5 years old. Due to their slow metabolisms, box turtles continue to grow until they are around 20 years old. Box turtles face many dangers, including lawn mowers, farm machinery, predators, and road crossings. If parts of their shell become damaged, they can regenerate and heal the shell. Incidentally, injured turtles may be brought to the college of veterinary medicine at Texas A & M University at any time for care and repair.
Box turtles are also threatened by the pet trade and casual poachers, like little boys who take them home as personal pets. Box turtles do not survive well living in strange places outside their home range. Since they take a long time to reach sexual maturity, live in a limited range and produce a small number of eggs in each clutch, they have a hard time when additional pressures are encountered. As more people collect box turtles as pets or to sell to others as pets, the turtle’s population declines. Like all species, there is a tipping point when recovery is impossible.
All adult box turtles will eat anything they can get into their mouths—including roadkill. They get most of the water they need from the food they eat. Texas subspecies are active year-round; however, cousins in colder regions will burrow into the ground and enter a low-grade type of hibernation until temps improve. Desert box turtles have adapted nicely to the arid conditions of the Trans-Pecos region by burrowing into shady areas in the scrubland and grasslands to protect them from the heat. Box turtles have existed for virtually thousands of years unchanged. There’s something reassuring about that.
As a human, it’s easy to think of myself as lucky—above the cycles and rhythms of primal life. I have been fortunate to travel during my life and consider myself cultured. I can contemplate the vastness of the universe. Yes, life is complex, and we sometimes get confused. As Twinkle lumbers along, his world is no less intense, his awareness no less acute. But his viewpoint is different. Twinkle is more enlightened. His life is simple, his mind is clear. He eats, moves, sleeps, reproduces when he can—no expectations, he just pays attention to what’s going on around him and lives his life. The sun traverses the sky, the rivers flow on, the seasons come and go as steadily as the revolving of a wheel. He knows he’s part of the great and eternally moving whole. Just by living his life he improves the world. Imagine that!
By Larry Gfeller