The three-toed box turtle is one of the most common turtles motorists will encounter in The Natural State. Two species of box turtle occur in the state, the three-toed and the ornate, the latter of which is protected and is illegal to possess or collect. Box turtles get their name from the hinged plastron (lower shell). Many turtles can retract into their shells, but box turtles can lift their lower shell to completely seal out any would-be attackers, forming a snug “box” of protection. Most first encounters people may have with a box turtle they’ve disturbed will be a waiting game until the reptile decides it is safe to open up and take a look around.
This ingenious defense makes adult box turtles impervious to attacks by many small predators, leaving disease and automobiles as the top causes of an individual turtle’s demise. It also endears it to curious children and adults, who often pick them up and bring them home as a wildlife pet.
While no current data is available to support any declines in three-toed box turtle populations in Arkansas, biologists at the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission say movement of these animals may have impacts on population dynamics on a small scale.
Kelly Irwin, herpetological program coordinator for the AGFC, says three-toed box turtles often will stay within the same 10- to 25-acre range for their entire life and have a strong homing instinct. If they are moved outside of this area, they may spend the rest of their lives wandering, trying to reorient themselves, especially if turtles are already present in the area where they are placed.
“One recent study moved a number of box turtles to a new location and tracked their movements,” Irwin said. “Only 47 percent of those moved established a home range in the new area. The rest wandered away or died.”
Another common practice by budding nature lovers is to mark or cover a turtle’s shell in paint so it will be recognized upon future visits. Ballard says such practices may seem like harmless fun, but they can impact the turtle greatly.
Painting a turtle a bright color not only makes it easier for you to see, it makes it easier for predators to locate. Although most small mammals cannot get into a box turtle’s shell a persistent coyote can eventually work its way through to the turtle underneath.
“You’re really painting a target on the turtle’s back,” Ballard said.
Paints also can be toxic to turtles, depending on the type used. They can block UV light needed by the turtle throughout its life cycle.
“The shell is a living part of the turtle,” Ballard said. “Hindering UV light absorption impacts Vitamin D production, which is vital to the turtle for bone and shell development.”
Irwin says enjoying reptiles and amphibians in the wild is one of the experiences that led him on the path to being a part of their conservation, and he encourages people to continue enjoying them in their natural setting.
“With the exception of venomous snakes, reptiles and amphibians are one of the few groups of animals someone could get close to and observe without fear or danger to them or the animals,” Irwin said. “I think it’s great that people enjoy these animals, and picking up an occasional box turtle, bullfrog or speckled kingsnake isn’t going to hurt things, but they do need to think about any consequences of moving them from the habitat where they were found. And doing things like painting them or marking them can only cause stress or make them more vulnerable to predation or disease.”