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Wild Thing: Texas Treasures

Beloved box turtles come packaged in protective, decorative shells.

By Tucker Slack

On a recent walk in the woods, our family dog returned from his travels with a “treasure” gripped firmly in his jaws. He ran straight to me, obediently dropped his package at my feet and proudly looked up awaiting his reward — a heartfelt “good boy!” Upon closer inspection, I noticed that this gift was a little different from his customary offerings. I reached down and picked up a slobbery, slimy and somewhat disoriented three-toed box turtle.

Just mention the name “box turtle” and it brings about a flood of fond childhood memories for most Texans. I doubt that there is any other type of turtle in our state so warmly welcomed by the masses, so loved that it could possibly compete with the beloved Texas horned lizard in a reptile popularity contest. Box turtles were once common throughout the state, but recent population declines have been a cause for concern.

Box turtle

Ornate box turtle.

There are two species of box turtles found in Texas — the eastern box turtle and the ornate box turtle. Three representative subspecies occur in Texas. The eastern box turtle is represented by the three-toed box turtle (Terrapene carolina triunguis). The ornate box turtle has two subspecies: the ornate box turtle (Terrapene ornata ornata) and the desert box turtle (Terrapene ornata luteola).

Box turtles can be found statewide, with each subspecies generally occupying a different area of the state. The desert box turtle inhabits the southwest, the three-toed box turtle resides in the eastern portion of our state, and the ornate box turtle generally enjoys a more statewide distribution. Box turtles are omnivorous, with a diet of insects, snails, slugs, fruits, berries, plants and sometimes carrion.

These unique turtles acquired their name from the hinge on their shell that allows them to completely shut the shell when threatened. This adaptation protects the turtle from its natural enemies, which are not thought to be the most likely culprits in recent population declines. Habitat loss and collection for the pet trade are the more likely reasons for the decline.

These turtles occupy a very small home range, which means that when they are removed from an area for any reason, they generally do not recolonize that area. They are also long-lived, having been documented with a lifespan of up to 50 years. Because of this long life expectancy, they take between five and 10 years to reach maturity, and produce relatively few offspring. These biological constraints add to the already daunting task of rebounding from population and habitat losses.

To enable us to better manage their populations and to gain more information about these turtles, TPWD tracks box turtle sightings. You can help by completing the form at www.tpwd.state.tx.us/boxturtles if you happen to encounter a box turtle. We hope these efforts will allow for future generations to look back at their fond childhood memories of these interesting “treasures.”


Related stories

Keep Texas Wild: Turtles (PDF)

Where Did All the Box Turtles Go?

See more wildlife articles on TP&W magazine's Wildlife page

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