4/10 First

This is how you look after spending the winter sleeping underground

Apologies for the long gap in posts, but I’ve been waiting for just this moment. 2019 will be my seventh year collecting data on the Box turtles of this forest, and yet the first one spotted each spring still gives me a thrill.

The loose soil to the left shows where this older male turtle recently dug out.

When a boxie emerges from brumation (the reptile version of hibernation), it’s not exactly ready to spring into action. Though the warming soil may encourage a turtle to emerge, it does so cautiously – often lingering with just its head above ground. If temperatures drop it will dig back down for awhile. Occasionally I’ve seen a boxie out in December during an unseasonal warm spell.

Brumation has allowed reptiles to live in climates with cold winters, but it’s a risky business. Unlike hibernating mammals, their body temperature falls to the level of the surrounding soil. If the hibernaculum is not sufficiently deep, or is dug into or otherwise disturbed, the sleeper is likely to freeze. Boxies often use the same area to hibernate year after year – yet another reason they should not be moved away from their home range.

Its bright pattern obscured by mud, this turtle blends with the dead leaves

How hard is it to spot a Box turtle in the forest, particularly if it’s covered in mud? I have rarely found one by searching – it’s usually just a result of being out there a lot puttering around. The first sighting of the season occurred last week while scouting a trail re-route. I left him to fetch my backpack with the turtle data book, and when I returned he was gone. This is the usual response, so I’ve learned to keep the book with me at all times in warm weather.

A Box turtles’s plastron (underside) pattern is often very distinctive, and helps with matching up multiple sightings of the same individual.

A few days later I encountered another male not far away. This one was already cleaned off by rain, revealing a bright and complex scute pattern.


Surprisingly, neither of these turtles had been previously marked with the signature green dot, (it was applied to the turtle above just before the photo was taken). Nor were they in my turtle data book, so it’s possible I have not observed them before. This is rather mind-boggling, considering what a small area they inhabit, and how much time I’ve spent working there.


One thing both boxies had in common was damage to the front of the carapace, likely the result of predators trying to gnaw their way in. Such damage is commonly seen on the turtles in this forest, and it’s almost always on the vulnerable front part of the carapace by the head.


Another sort of damage was visible on the rear of the plastron, exposing a portion of the turtle’s tail and hind leg.


These injuries may have happened when the turtles were quite a bit younger. The first few years of a boxie’s life are an especially dangerous time, since their shells are still thin enough to be punctured or gnawed open by predators. Baby box turtles are rarely seen; their cryptic coloration and habit of hiding are their only protections.

I may not see either of these Box turtles again for several years, but undoubtedly will see many others that have recently emerged from brumation over the next few weeks. Each one is a unique individual, with its own particular timing, and this variation likely protects the population as a whole from adverse conditions.










9 thoughts on “4/10 First

  1. Mark Daniel

    Nice blog! Thank you for making it so interesting.
    I live in a 1960s subdivision (Indianhead Acres) in Tallahassee, FL designed to accommodate the many box turtles that share the 500 acres filled with 800 homes. There are no curbs or gutters on the streets. There are no underground culverts for drainage. Rain runoff drainage is via open, gentle, grassy Swales. Box turtles are free to roam to find the bugs and plums they like. I work outside a lot and eat lots of apples. The box turtles gather at the back door, waiting for the next apple core. I never thought to look at their plastron. I recognize the regulars by their patterns, each of which is very distinctive, once I learned to pay attention.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. oneforestfragment

      That’s quite wonderful! I had no idea there was such an environmentally enlightened subdivision. It sounds like the habitat is amazing for them – have you seen evidence of nesting, or observed young turtles?


      1. Mark Daniel

        Every couple of years I’ll get lucky and find a cluster of newly hatched baby box turtles. I wonder how many survive the numerous raccoons….?
        Cold weather comes and the box turtles head down tunnels they’ve dug under my tool shed and plant debris piles. North Florida has mild winters, and a string of warm days brings them back out.
        I keep the back yard fairly natural (overgrown!) which encourages a lot of the turtles: food is plentiful. They love to eat roly polys. I have plums, too, as well as jelly palm fruit.
        They are old familiar friends, who remain close by. I wonder how wide a circle they inhabit, but don’t think it’s beyond 500 feet. New ones come every summer, too.


  2. shoreacres

    What a wonderful post. I know the red-eared sliders that are common here, and have seen the occasional snapping turtle. I know there are other species, but I’m not sure what they are.

    Our biggest problem here is that when they emerge in spring or are heading off to the mud in fall, they often cross roads to get to water. Of course, many are hit. The good news is that they’re more often rolled and damaged than killed, and many can be rehabbed. I carry a box and towels in the car with me all the time, and more than once have taken one to our “turtle lady.” She’s quite skilled with fiberglass, which can work wonders for a broken shell.


  3. ankethirulkar

    If boxies often use the same area to hibernate year after year, why might you not be able to see either of these Box turtles again for several years?

    Also what is the turtle data book?

    Thanks for the post. It’s feels good to visit your blog.


    1. oneforestfragment

      That’s a great question, and I believe one could find them again at the site – if you were there when they emerged, or at times when they are out finding food. But one of their survival traits is to spend a lot of time in their “form” or hidden resting place. This forest is also rich with fallen trees, logs, brush, etc. and not an easy place to spot a small, well camouflaged turtle. I see them most often during or just after warm rain, when snails and small arthropods are active. A research project starting this spring will allow us to track the habits of ten turtles, who will have radio telemetry tracking devices glued to their carapace for one year. I will blog about the project soon.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Mark Daniel

        When it comes time to find your box turtles, just remember they’re great at locating sweet fruit.
        I share a banana with them by laying half down in an open spot on the banana skin.
        Within an hour I usually get every turtle in the yard gathering for the treat. They love it so much, I usually feel guilty about having eaten my part of the banana.


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