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Where Did All the Box Turtles Go?

Experts seek help from the public to determine the turtle’s status.

By Sheryl Smith-Rodgers

For generations, horned lizards thrived in arid and semi-arid habitats across Texas. Then, in the 1970s, Texans noticed they didn’t see as many as they once did. The resulting citizens’ concerns led the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department in 1997 to establish the Texas Horned Lizard Watch.

Now Texans are asking why box turtles aren’t as prolific in the Lone Star State as they once were. Biologists are wondering, too.

“TPWD would like to know more about what’s going on with these species,” says Lee Ann Linam, a biologist with the department’s Wildlife Diversity branch. “They seem to parallel the horned lizard — there’s a perception that there’s not as many box turtles as there used to be. But there’s not a lot of research on them. So TPWD biologists and staff will be on the lookout for box turtles around the state.”

Box turtles have a single hinge at the front of their lower shell, which allows them to fold up and close their shell entirely, hence, their common name of “box turtle.” Two species are found in Texas. The eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina) inhabits East Texas, while the ornate box turtle (Terrapene ornata ornata) ranges throughout most of the state. Ornate box turtles west of the Pecos River are commonly called desert box turtles (Terrapene ornata luteola).

Linam hopes that members of state herpetological societies will assist with gathering reports on turtle sightings. Data will be compiled and analyzed. “If box turtles appear to be scarcer than they used to be, then we may develop a citizens’ watch program as well as other research,” the biologist says.

Michael Smith with the Box Turtle Partnership of Texas staunchly advocates conservation of the species. “We’re going to lose box turtles if we don’t take steps now to save them,” he says. “We need to learn a lot in a hurry or it will be too late to bring them back.”

Highway mortality, habitat degradation, urban sprawl, collection from the wild and low reproduction rates may be contributing to the turtles’ possible decline. Fred Gehlbach, a research professor of biology at Baylor University, has surveyed reptiles in a 170-acre region west of Waco for the past 40 years.

“The ornate box turtle together with eight other reptiles were totally wiped out by suburban sprawl that erased the rangeland after it was sold to developers,” he reports. “The eastern box turtle population has been reduced by approximately 85 percent and is probably not reproducing. I haven’t seen a juvenile eastern in 15 years!”

For more information, including forms to report box turtle sightings, visit www.tpwd.state.tx.us/boxturtles/. The Box Turtle Partnership of Texas also has an online form at www.gctts.org/BTPT.

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