This time of year, you don’t have to join a herptile hunt to see Eastern box turtles (see Sandra Lee Anderson’s story: ). But you do have to drive carefully lest you squash one you didn’t see. Box turtles are crossing our roads — very slowly.
Habitat destruction is the primary culprit for the species’ decline. As once-rural areas continue to be developed and subdivided, automobile traffic increases on roads once less traveled.
All this is news to the turtles, as they continue along their customary routes to food, nest and hibernation sites in home ranges typically not much more than several acres.
Some researchers have suggested that the loss of just one adult box turtle from a local population each year could soon wipe out that population, whose reproduction is a lengthy, tenuous and oftentimes inefficient process.
Females typically produce small clutches of only three or four eggs a year, and temperature extremes, heavy rainfall, fungus and predators frequently destroy the eggs. Even when an egg does hatch, the hatchling — again having to struggle against weather, predators and other hazards — has a slim chance of reaching adulthood. It takes years to fully develop the stronger, protective adult shell and years of habitat familiarity to attain some degree of relative safety.
A female who is able to survive her first several years, reaching reproductive maturity, can produce a few hundred eggs during her lifetime, which can reach 75 to 100 years. From this lifetime of egg production, only two or three hatchlings may reach adulthood to sustain the population.
So please keep an eye out when driving along suburban or rural roadways, particularly in the mornings and during and after summer rain showers. If you happen to find a box turtle making its way across a road, at the very minimum please avoid hitting it. If you are so inclined, help it across (to the side it was headed) to a safe distance away from the road.
The handsome box turtle is distinguished by its high, domed shell of dark brown to green with patterns of orange or reddish blotches. Snappers, which you should be more cautious in helping cross the road, are flatter, spiky and appropriately menacing looking.