Finding a Box Turtle

In May of the year 2000, Steve Campbell and I found a box turtle on our way to the LBJ National Grasslands, north of Decatur. It was an old male that had probably walked the fields and fencerows for twenty or perhaps thirty years or more. These ornate box turtles, with their yellow streaks on a compact, dark shell, used to be a common sight in the western cross timbers north and west of Fort Worth. In the last fifty years they’ve become increasingly uncommon in most of the places where they are found. So Steve and I were faced with a problem: what do you do with a turtle found just past someone’s driveway, on a busy farm road at the outskirts of a small but growing city?

Taking it home was never an option for us to consider. The box turtles that are left in the wild need to stay there, because the species depends on adults living a long time and continuing to reproduce, in order to have a chance of surviving. That individual turtle might have done fine if we had collected him; both Steve and I understood its need for a varied diet, an outdoor enclosure with access to direct sunlight as well as water and refuge, and such things. However, once picked up and taken home, it is dead to the population of box turtles. It might as well have been run over, as far as the impact on the box turtle population is concerned. We would like future generations to be able to see box turtles in the wild, and so we were not going to take that turtle out of the population.

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An ornate box turtle

Perhaps one way to keep the turtle in the population would be to take it far down a side road, away from traffic, and release it in a meadow near a pond – how does that sound? It used to sound great to me, but it can only sound good if we ignore something pretty important about box turtle behavior. If I was picked up and taken far from home, placed on an unfamiliar street surrounded by strangers, I would set out to try to find home. It probably would not matter that the neighborhood might not look so bad, I would want to find the place I know. I would want to go home. It is similar with box turtles. I do not want to anthropomorphize, trying to make box turtles just like people. However, these turtles do learn and remember important landmarks, and as they grow up, they generally establish a “home range.” This is an area that the turtle uses for day-to-day activities, in the same patch of woods or the same meadow, for most or all of the year.  In North American Box Turtles: A Natural History, C. Kenneth Dodd reports that while it is an area of variable size, often it is about the size of a couple of football fields. While some box turtles are transients, most stay within a small area over the course of years. And if moved out of this home range, they generally try to find their way back.

This tendency toward “homing” has plagued efforts to re-populate areas from which box turtles have declined. It also makes it hard to know what to do with box turtles found on city streets or other places where they cannot stay. If you take them to some new place, even an apparently good place, they may wander off. This is generally true of many reptile species – they know where they live and they don’t do well when released far from home. The mortality rate among relocated reptiles is high, presumably from wandering into danger or failing to settle down and find adequate shelter and food.

In a study published last year in Herpetological Conservation & Biology, J. Alan Sosa and Gad Perry reported on their work releasing adult, juvenile, and hatchling ornate box turtles in the Lubbock area. The turtles came from a wildlife rehabilitation facility, where they were brought after being hurt or found in areas that were obviously unsuitable for them. The researchers relocated only healthy turtles, placing them in a variety of locations. Some were released in suburban back yards, others in small undeveloped areas within the city limits, and still others were released on ranchland outside the city. Their whereabouts were tracked using radio transmitters glued to their shells. They found that only 24% of the adult turtles remained in the area where they were released, regardless of what which area it was. There were better results with juveniles and hatchlings, but even then, only 40% of them remained in the area.

And so, if we had taken our ornate box turtle to some place we considered safer and better, it is likely that the outcome for the turtle would be bad, with the turtle failing to settle down and “make a living” in a new place. Imagine how this applies to all the turtles that well-intentioned people take some place and let go, thinking that they’ve done the turtle a favor or helped boost the local population of turtles. And yet, it’s hard to know the right thing to do when you find a box turtle in a suburban neighborhood, in imminent danger from traffic, dogs, pesticides, and many other hazards. Our box turtle’s circumstances were a little better. It was at the edge of a small town, with open fields across the road.

We did about the only thing that our knowledge of box turtle natural history and our commitment to conservation left for us to do. We took the turtle across the road and released it in the nearby field. I thought about the chances that this turtle could go on living in this same patch of grassland, near a line of trees and a little creek, where it probably grew up. It had been lucky enough to survive all these years and not been run over by a car, or collected and put in some dirty aquarium in somebody’s house. Maybe that turtle is still roaming around on the outskirts of Decatur, eating dewberries and grasshoppers, and getting a good soak in the puddles after it rains. Maybe he ran across a female box turtle and together they generated one more clutch of eggs, from which one hatchling (if it was lucky) would survive to adulthood to carry on the species.

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An ornate box turtle seen at LBJ Grasslands on a different occasion – I made sure it got across the road and watched it walk out into the grasslands

On the other hand, I don’t know if that turtle wandered back out on the road the next day, possibly to be run over. There is no way for me to know, but I am sure we made the right decision on that day, sixteen years ago. Over the years since then, I have wandered the LBJ Grasslands many times, but have only seen  two or three other box turtles. We need to keep those turtles out there, alive and at home.

Resilience, and Other Qualities Seen on a Walk in the Woods

I needed a walk in the woods. Too much time inside, too many news reports, too many Facebook opinions, too much about the troubles of human society. And although a couple of weeks ago August was an oven, a short walk would be a way to check in with the things that are our original home: land, water, and sky. We should, at least from time to time, go home.

The closest place to go home is the nearby Southwest Nature Preserve, a 58-acre remnant of the oak woods and savannahs known as the “eastern cross timbers.” Like other urban preserves, it has some invasive plants and is tagged in a few places by invasive humans with more spray paint than good sense, but it is mostly a beautiful oasis of post oak, patches of bluestem grass, and a few small ponds, stubbornly hanging on in the middle of the DFW metroplex.

In the first part of my walk, I skirted the big pond, peeking around cattails looking for frogs or turtles. It did not take long to spot a small male red-eared slider, basking on a branch just above the water. He looked around at me and then scooted off his perch and into the water, swimming past a beer can left by some careless fisherman.

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Juvenile red-eared slider at Southwest Nature Preserve

“Resilient,” I thought, “that’s a good word for these turtles.” They are among our most successful reptiles, found in practically any pond, creek, or lake in Texas, most of the U.S., and even around the world, thanks to the commercial trade in turtles for food or pets. I have seen them swimming amid trash in polluted rivers, and making do with algae-clogged little ponds that turn into hot tubs as summer heat cooks away most of the water. They are tough, and able to come back from practically any challenge nature and humans can throw at them. They are resilient, and with their yellow-green striped bodies and brilliant red patches of skin toward the backs of their heads, they bring a little beauty to our neglected and littered waterways.

I kept walking, past the dragonflies that hovered and flitted at the pond’s edge on cellophane wings, and I brushed through vegetation growing nearly waist high at either side of the very narrow footpath. Eventually the path broke away from the big pond and climbed up onto a glade where grasses and forbs grew, surrounded by trees. “Forb” is a funny word, essentially meaning the plants that don’t have woody stems and are not grasses. Think of sunflowers, clover, Indian paintbrush, and on and on. Or hedge parsley, a little relative of the carrot, known scientifically as Torilis arvensis. Sometimes known in the vernacular as “beggar’s lice.”

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Hedge parsley seeds – “beggar’s lice”

In the spring, stems of Torilis arvensis have multiple little flower stalks (or “umbels,” like the ribs of an umbrella) ending in clusters of lacey little white flowers. As the year progresses, the flowers go to seed, producing clusters of tiny fruits that dry into spiny little dots of Velcro. As I walked through this sunny glade, I began to collect dozens of these seeds on my clothes. They were no longer anything beautiful or lacey, but more like … lice. Tiny pests that cause discomfort and are hard to get rid of. They can encrust shoelaces so that it takes much time and attention to rip them all out. And socks – sometimes it’s better to just throw them away.

For the plant, this is a wonderful seed dispersal strategy. For the species to survive, the plant needs to spread the seeds around, not just drop them and grow new plants in the same spot. They catch in animal hair – or clothing – and are carried to new locations before they are pulled or chewed loose and dropped to the ground. What wonderful tenacity! In our efforts to get something done, if we could hold on and never give up the way these seeds do, we might accomplish a great deal.

I was aware that I was interpreting my observations of nature in a sort of metaphorical way. I know the beggar’s lice seeds don’t intend to be tenacious, they are just designed in such a way that they made me think of the quality of tenacity. I can appreciate nature for what it is, and at the same time be open to other ideas that it inspires.

I continued my walk, trying to dislodge more seeds every few steps. What other good qualities might we see in nature, besides resilience and tenacity? I thought about the oaks, with their deep roots and the waxy coatings of the leaves, conserving the water that can be lost so quickly in the August heat. The refuge looked remarkably full of life, despite the relentless sun and intense summer heat.

Funnel web spiders are common in the cross timbers, and further along, on a wooded hillside, I came upon a particularly large web with an opening that led back into a section of fallen log. The spider weaves a big sheet that gradually forms a funnel leading back into some refuge. All around it, the spider leaves filaments that, when bumped by some unfortunate insect, signal the spider to rush out and grab its prey.  The funnel and all the associated strands seemed huge to me, and I wondered if the spider might have produced nearly its own weight in silk to complete this grand arachnid palace.

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Funnel web spider’s web

Another example of a positive quality. “Amazing industry!” I thought, borrowing the term used by Erik Erikson to describe a major developmental task of childhood. By showing initiative and working on things (industry), we develop competence and self-confidence. The spider must have worked long and hard to construct this elaborate trap to catch its dinner. If I had the patience, I would love to watch it work, and see how long it would take to build such a big funnel and then lay out all the zig-zagging tripwires that complete the trap.

Morning was turning to midday, and the summer heat was rising. It was time to leave, but I won’t stay gone long. I need to see examples of resilience, beauty, tenacity, industry, and all those other qualities that can always be found in nature.

(Thank you to Suzanne Tuttle for help identifying beggar’s lice with its more “official” name!)

The Highway Revisited

There is a road, no simple highway, 
Between the dawn, and the dark of night,
And if you go, no one may follow,
That path is for your steps alone.
–    Robert Hunter (the Grateful Dead)

Rolling hills cast long, stretching shadows across a wide expanse of open short grass prairie long conquered by mesquite trees, as the crown of a vibrant August sun, held at bay all day by dense cloud cover, finally gave in and slipped out of sight on the western horizon.  It shone but for a moment on a beat up Ford F-150 as it rattled slowly and deliberately down highway 6 in Haskell county. My wife leaned up in her seat, eyes focusing on the ribbon of grey tarmac several yards in front of us.  As if on cue, a winding, serpentine form appeared there, the last fading rays of daylight glinting off its smooth scales.  It was an eastern yellow-bellied racer, and past experience had taught me not to waste my energy on this diurnal speedster who was probably headed for some familiar burrow following an afternoon of lizard hunting.  The snake crossed safely into the roadside grass, and we rolled on, stopping only to identify a road killed western coachwhip before turning off the state road onto the Great Rattlesnake Highway.

In what visible light remained, the silhouette of a red-tailed hawk stood out from atop its noble perch on a telephone pole, surveying its world from the pinnacle of the food chain.  Although the day had been overcast, the clouds were now parting to reveal a gleaming full moon.  While this wasn’t necessarily ideal for herping, I had great confidence in this road, for seldom has it let me down.

As darkness engulfed the plains the night shift began to emerge, first in the form of black-tailed jackrabbits and eastern cottontails, who seemed to be making a game out of playing ‘chicken’ with us, the only vehicle on the road.  Whitetail deer could be seen in the outer realm of our headlights, their ever-paranoid heads jerked taut as they struggled over the decision of going towards the light or bounding away from it over the fence line.  This is always my favorite part: anticipation…

It didn’t last long.  A stout, cylindrical tube of rectilinear motion slid along between the shoulder and center stripe, the telltale black and white rings on its posterior slightly elevated.  Even from inside the vehicle I knew instantly what it was.  The thick head, swollen on the sides where the venom glands lay just below the skin, those handsome rusty diamonds set around their edges like cream colored pearls.  It was a western diamond-backed rattlesnake, a Texas legend, vestigial reminder of what precious life is left in our  rapidly vanishing wild places.

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Western diamond-backed rattlesnake (photo: Clint King)

We slid the vehicle to a stop and got out then, our flash lights bouncing erratically for a brief moment before one locked on its target.

The western diamond-back is the most common nocturnal venomous serpent on this road, but it is one I never tire of finding.  This one was a juvenile; several segments on the rattle were proof of the area’s adequate rainfall and the subsequent crop and grass growth that had occurred since the past summer.  Seed production had been higher as a result, which had led to a higher rodent population, which meant this particular snake, and others like it, had enjoyed their first season in times of plenty. More food meant more growth, which led to more shed skins, which added more segments to the rattle.

My wife and I admired this exquisite creature, perfectly adapted in every way to ensure its survival here in such an inhospitable environment.  From the tough, roughly compact and water resistant scales that protected it from the sharp spines of mesquite and cacti, to the subtle muted coloration and pattern that rendered it all but invisible under those same plants, to the formidable hypodermic fangs packed with a tissue destroying venom that both protected it from predators and heightened its chance of subduing prey, this was an animal born to thrive and succeed in the dry, brutal landscape that is the rolling plains of Texas.  And, after a brief photo session, that is right where we left him.

Pulling back out onto the roadway and out into the moonlit night, our senses on the alert now that we had enjoyed a little victory, the headlights cut an intrusive path through the mysterious hidden secrets of the plains, as we impatiently awaited our next discovery that as of yet lay just beyond our tiny half sphere of vision, somewhere out on the Great Rattlesnake Highway.

Traveling Down the Highway

The Road goes ever on and on,
Down from the door where it began
                        -J.R.R. Tolkien

MAS04_09_20140309Year after year, we travel down this Great Rattlesnake Highway, two addicts never tiring of the desert, mountains, woods, prairies, and wetlands, and all the life that they hold. We hope that you will hitchhike down that highway with us. If you love nature, if being out there recharges you in ways that seem essential to your well-being, then you’ll probably enjoy the ride. If you are fascinated with the lives of plants and animals (and especially if you have a sweet tooth for reptiles and amphibians), we figure you may already be on that highway with us.

The Great Rattlesnake Highway is that endless road that leads to the wildlife and wild places in Texas and the surrounding states. It is a journey that leads to all kinds of unpredictable and beautiful experiences, including encounters with rattlesnakes. For us, these snakes encompass a lot of what draws us to the natural world: unique adaptations to their environments, beautiful forms and patterns, defenses that are not malicious but do command respect, and complex behaviors. And, while we might have embraced the ornate box turtle or the Texas spiny lizard as our icon for the wildlife we love, Clint and I are both just a little bit drawn to the underdog. Without a doubt, the rattlesnake is not high on everyone’s list of most-loved wildlife.

Maybe part of its appeal is that when you put aside preconceived ideas about aggression and threat, you find an animal that avoids conflict when it can, exhibits some degree of maternal care for its young, and learns to recognize the landmarks of the area where it lives. Rattlesnakes are not eager to use their venom against enemies unless truly threatened, but the snake’s venom glands, hollow fangs, and the mechanics of striking and injecting venom are amazing evolutionary adaptations. The rattle – that string of dry, interlocking, hollow pieces – is a unique warning device whose sound is not easily forgotten. Specialized muscles in the snake’s tail shake the rattle at nearly 100 cycles per second, producing a high-pitched buzz that has been compared with the hiss of escaping steam or the sizzling of bacon. Literally from snout to tail tip, the rattlesnake is highly specialized and evolved.

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Western massasauga rattlesnake (photo: Michael Smith)

Whether it’s encounters with rattlesnakes or watching admiral butterflies hovering over stream side vegetation, we need this highway into the natural world more and more as time goes by. For some of us, the natural world is a refuge from the political and societal world of humans, which seems to get better in some ways but grow more problematic in many others. Given a choice between walking urban streets or taking a walk through the woods, we’ll take the woods. If we could visit a mall or wade through a marsh, it’s the marsh every single time. For Clint and me, the need for relatively undisturbed places in nature is like the need for oxygen.

We believe that there is more to this “need” for nature than just personal preference. Increasingly, contact with nature is being shown to be important for our physical and mental health. Research shows that children who spend time in nature gain benefits in mental health and emotion regulation and are more physically active (see the website for the Children & Nature Network). For us, this kind of research finding is just validation of what is already very real in our lives. Among the times we feel most alive, at home, relaxed, and engaged is in the mountains of the Trans Pecos, walking in a tallgrass prairie, or watching turtles and fish in a clear creek.

We plan to write on a regular basis about what  we experience and what we learn in our continuing travels. Whether it’s a note from the Big Thicket of southeast Texas, a recollection of a day in Palo Duro Canyon, or an observation from the preserve down the street here in the cross timbers of north Texas, we will be talking about it here. We hope you will stay in touch, and join us on the Great Rattlesnake Highway.