by Marc Killingstad
With springs arrival, you should anticipate increased traffic on the roads. Its not cars and trucks Im talking about, but wildlife. Expect to see an upsurge in wildlife traffic along roadways as squirrels, rabbits, raccoons, owls, opossums, foxes and many other animals become increasingly active as temperatures rise.
One particular animal needs more assistance from us than the others. The Eastern box turtle crosses very slowly.
This attractive turtle is easily recognizable with its high, domed shell of dark brown to green with patterns of orange or reddish blotches. Its protective shell, unfortunately, does not withstand the impact of an automobile.
Eastern box turtles are not listed as endangered in Maryland, but they are considered a species of special concern in many states throughout the mid-Atlantic because of their decreasing numbers. Regrettably, government-initiated conservation efforts typically do not take place until populations have been depleted to the point of being considered threatened or endangered.
In Virginia , box turtles are listed as nongame-protected by the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. In the Pennsylvania General Assembly, a resolution was introduced last year selecting, designating and adopting the Eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina) as the official reptile of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. That lofty status shared with North Carolina protects the species from further exploitation. This resolution was supported by members of several conservation groups and service organizations who were deeply concerned over the declining population of box turtles throughout the state due to development of its natural habitat.
On an international level, the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora has listed the North American box turtle as a threatened species.
Only after box turtle populations started to decline noticeably have biologists understood the delicate population dynamics of this species. Habitat destruction is the primary culprit for the recent decline. As turtles continued along their customary routes to food, nest and hibernation sites, deaths increased dramatically as vehicles and development encroached upon their home ranges, which are 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.
Box turtle reproduction can be generously described as 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 up to 75 to 100 years. From this lifetime of egg production, only two or three hatchlings may reach adulthood to sustain the population. That box turtles have been able to survive as a species for this long is a testament to their slow-and-steady-wins-the-race legend.
Thus, losing that slow trickle of eggs from one adult turtle can significantly impact a local population but can easily go unrecognized during our lifetime.
As once-rural areas of Maryland continue to be developed and subdivided, automobile traffic will also increase proportionately on what were once seldom-traveled roads. Many of these relocated drivers may not realize that they now live in turtle country and, as they make their morning commute, may be unaware of the potential presence of these special creatures along the roadways.
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 this spring or summer, 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.
Taking this simple action will contribute greatly to the future of this remarkable species that many of us take for granted. The sustainability of Marylands box turtle population requires that we all do our part, no matter how small, to conserve this unique and gentle creature.