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.
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.
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 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.