Slow and Steady Wins the Race, unless….

Virginia Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica)

If you were lucky enough to have Aesop’s fable “The Tortoise and the Hare” read to you at a young age, then you know how this story ends. The hare/rabbit mockingly challenges the tortoise/turtle to a race. Then, the rabbit is so confident of his speed that he takes a nap in the middle of the race and loses to the much slower turtle. The moral of the story offers us an important metaphor for life — “slow and steady wins the race.”

When it comes to North Carolina’s state reptile, the Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina), slow and steady may not be enough to compete with the speediest, most confident species the Earth has ever seen – us humans. Homo sapiens have found fossilized remains of Eastern Box Turtles dating back 5 million years, yet we’ve only dated our own earliest remains back to something like 200,000+/- years. That means 96% of the time that Eastern Box Turtles have been slowly walking the Earth (4.8 million years), they haven’t had to worry about us confident, speedy humans. Now they do. But why is that?

Both North and South Carolina have listed Eastern Box Turtle as a declining species across much of the Carolina Piedmont and a priority for protection in their State Wildlife Action Plans. The primary causes of this decline are – would you believe – human induced. Habitat loss, road mortality, and illegal collecting top the list.  They can take up to 10 years to reach breeding age, if they make it. We see plenty of Eastern Box Turtles here at Southern 8ths, but how are their populations doing in the Carolinas, and what can we do to help them thrive for another 5 million years (or more)?

Sydney Grant, leads the Eastern Box Turtle study at the Southern 8ths Field Station

Sydney Grant, leads the Eastern Box Turtle study at the Southern 8ths Field Station

To help answer those questions, we brought in the experts. This summer, a dedicated team of biology students and their professor from Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina, submitted a research proposal to Carolina Wildlands Foundation to help us figure it out. Sydney Grant, a lifelong South Carolinian pursuing a master’s degree in biology, leads the Eastern Box Turtle study at Southern 8ths, under the direction of biology professor Dr. Kiyoshi Sasaki. Sydney is assisted by Luke Reed and Jacob Hilgemann, who are studying Eastern Box Turtles In a more urban setting at Winthrop Woods on the university campus. Over time, the comparison of rural and urban populations may reveal important findings that can support efforts to protect these unique reptiles.

On July 14 – 16, the turtle team braved heat and humidity, bushwhacking their way through the deciduous woods and forest edges for hours, constantly scanning the forest floor for the dome-like turtle shells. Their mission: locate, document, and add tracking devices to twelve Eastern Box Turtles in different habitats around the property. Their results: mission accomplished!

The search for land turtles is kind of a walking meditation, with the group spread out for a peaceful, contemplative, purposeful walk in the woods. But every so often, someone catches a glimpse of that distinctive camouflage shell pattern among the leaves and forest plants and yells out “I found a turtle!”  The twelve turtles ranged in size and age, from 1- or 2-year-olds that fit in the palm of your hand, to larger adults of 5 or 6 inches in length, some of whom were likely to be years older than the students themselves.

Winthrop University researchers on the hunt for Eastern Box Turtles

Winthrop University researchers on the hunt for Eastern Box Turtles

It helps to search for the turtles after a summer rain, when they tend to be more active. The group found more of them in lush ground vegetation (including the widely, wildly invasive Japanese stiltgrass), and often near one of their preferred foods – wild mushrooms. One of the little guys they collected still had some yellow mushroom bits stuck to his mouth, so his name for the data sheet was an easy choice — “Shrooms.” Like us, Eastern Box Turtles are omnivores…whose motto seems to be “If it’s at my level, and fits in my mouth, I’ll give it a try.”  In addition to mushrooms, they’re known to dine on mayapple fruits, fallen fruits of persimmon, pawpaw, wild grapes, and meatier slugs and worms.

Some of the turtles have scars on their shells, perhaps indicating a predator such as Eastern Coyote or River Otter attempting to eat them. Eastern Box Turtles, true to their name, have a unique superpower to elude predators – they can close up their shells tightly like a box.  We do occasionally find bleached turtle shells at Southern 8ths that may have been prey or died of other causes.

Each turtle is weighed, sexed, its shell measured, photographed, named, its location registered with GPS so it can be mapped, then a radio transmitter is attached to its shell so its movement can be tracked and mapped. The transmitters will be removed in approximately one year.

Each turtle is weighed, sexed, its shell measured, photographed, named, its location registered with GPS so it can be mapped, then a radio transmitter is attached to its shell so its movement can be tracked and mapped. The transmitters will be removed in approximately one year.

Entire populations of Box Turtles are killed when humans bulldoze more and more of the native oak-pine forest habitats box turtles need, to construct the urban/suburban environments we want. Smaller populations of Box Turtles living in more fragmented, developed landscapes with more cars and people face a triple threat: getting bulldozed, run over, or collected for someone’s menagerie of illegal wild pets. Slow and steady cannot win that race.

If you are one of those kind souls who stop – safely — to move turtles off the road (and keep them pointed in the direction they were headed), that’s one small action we can take to help. Most drivers just keep on going, while others can be truly evil.  A study conducted in 2012 by an off-duty NASA engineer found that 6% of drivers intentionally swerved to run over plastic turtles, snakes, and tarantulas. One positive finding was that many more drivers stopped to move the turtles than those who tried to squash them.  Here in South Carolina, a similar study by a Clemson student using only plastic turtles near campus found 7 out of 267 drivers had deadly intent.

If your local government lacks any kind of woodland protection ordinance or conservation program, then vulnerable species like this have no voice, and no choice but to live in whatever remnant habitats we leave as our leftovers.

Eastern Box Turtles generally don’t range more than 200 or 300 meters, which means the really need woodlands of well over 20 acres in size to not just survive, but to thrive.  That’s why over 1,400 acres of forests and fields here at Southern 8ths are permanently protected as a sanctuary for wildlife, and why we encourage other landowners to give back whatever habitat they can on their own land.

We humans are fast and clever enough to “win” the race against turtles and the myriad of other native woodland species but, in the end, what do we win?  When we live in ways that cause extinctions, everyone loses.  When we live as part of the natural community, everyone wins.

Photo lead image: Jim Lynch, National Park Service – Wikimedia Commons