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.
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.
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.