By Bennett Moseley, Wildlife Biologist
Box turtles are common in most parts of Alabama, even though there has been a decline in population numbers in recent decades. They can often be observed after a summer rain along rural roadsides and near forested areas. Box turtles have a unique, hinged plastron—the lower portion of the shell—that allows the turtle to close its shell almost completely, providing an excellent escape from any would-be predators.
Two of the most common subspecies in Alabama are the Eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina) and the Gulf Coast box turtle (Terrapene carolina major). The Eastern box turtle is usually four to six inches long with four toes and a brightly marked upper shell, or carapace. The GulfCoast box turtle is the largest of these subspecies measuring five to seven inches in length with four toes. The carapace is usually an olive drab and not as brightly marked. Both subspecies have steep, keeled, high domed upper shells with variable markings. Their jaws are slightly hooked and the toes are only slightly webbed.
Mating season usually begins in the spring and continues throughout the summer. Males have been known to mate with several different females or one female several times over a period of years. It is possible for a female to lay fertile eggs up to four years after a successful mating. Both Eastern box turtles and GulfCoast box turtles have distinct courtship rituals. Nesting usually occurs from May to July. A nest is usually dug in sandy soil using the strong hind legs of the female. Eggs are carefully laid in the nest and covered. Clutch sizes vary from three to eight eggs and females may lay several clutches each year. Incubation is usually three months but can vary depending on soil temperature.
Box turtles are long-lived reptiles and may live for more than a hundred years. Their flesh has been consumed for food; however, they are dangerous to eat because their diet consists of mushrooms that may be toxic to humans. These toxins may remain in their flesh for long periods. Box turtles are omnivorous and feed on insects as well as berries, fungi, worms, roots, slugs, flowers, frogs, salamanders and snakes. They will eat eggs indiscriminately and have been observed eating carrion.
Population numbers of these turtles have been declining in recent decades largely due to habitat destruction. Much of the loss can be attributed to residential construction, highways, and commercial developments. Roads present a great hazard to turtles. Large numbers are lost to automobiles each year. Another possible reason for this decline in population might be attributed to the increase in the illegal pet trade of reptiles and amphibians.
Alabama has adopted regulations protecting many animals, including box turtles, against this illegal trade. These regulations make it unlawful to offer for sale or trade anything of value for any box turtle, box turtle part or reproductive product. This is definitely a step in the right direction and it is hoped that future research on habitat and environmental needs will further protect these subspecies of box turtles. In the meantime, a kind act such as safely removing one from the road might go a long way in preserving these animals for future generations