Eastern box turtles are one of the most recognized and beloved turtles found throughout the state of Virginia. Often seen traveling along hiking trails and other wooded areas, their brightly colored shells and docile nature are a familiar sight to behold.
While still common in many areas, the overall population of eastern box turtles in certain states has been steadily declining. So much so, that the Commonwealth of Virginia recently imposed a new ban, effective July 2021— eastern box turtles can no longer be taken from the wild and kept as pets.
With a typical reproduction rate of 2-7 eggs per year, each box turtle that is removed from the wild greatly affects the overall population. Herps of NC states, “Eastern box turtles mature slowly, reaching sexual maturity between 7 and 10 years of age . . . because [of this] it is hard for box turtle populations to recover from these pressures.” Many also agree it is inhumane to capture a turtle who previously had free range in the wild and place it in a small captive setting, such as a tank.
Box turtles also have a very strong homing instinct and when people decide they no longer want them as pets, the turtles are often released miles away from the place they were originally captured. This can lead to starvation, car collision, and predatory attacks as the turtles try to return to their home territory.
In addition to the pet trade, box turtles in the wild are also victims of shell painting. While many think it’s harmless, fun, and even cute to decorate a turtle’s shell with colorful paint and nail polish, it is actually very cruel. When a turtle’s shell is painted it induces stress upon the animal, takes away their means of camouflage—making the turtle more susceptible to predators—affects their ability to regulate their temperature, and essentially results in the turtle absorbing a very toxic substance into its bloodstream.
Another threat that eastern box turtles face is habitat destruction. Because of their strong homing instinct, when a turtle’s territory is destroyed by development and roadways, the turtle must seek out a new area where they can locate a mate, find a steady food source, as well as a place to hibernate and lay their eggs. This often leads to car collisions as turtles travel through unfamiliar territory in search of these necessary elements.
As of June 14, 2021, the Blue Ridge Wildlife Center stated that they had already admitted 95 turtles this year—many injured by cars. With so many threats stacked against them, many states have listed the eastern box turtle as a Species of Special Concern.
To battle some of these issues, The Wildlife Center of Virginia has encouraged people to take the “Wilson’s Turtle Promise” in which they agree to leave wild turtles alone unless helping them safely across the road.
Another way individuals can contribute to the conservation of box turtles is to report any sightings to the Virginia Herpetological Society. This can be done by filling out the Box Turtle Reporting Form found on their website.
While protecting and preserving eastern box turtles does present its challenges; we can help this treasured turtle make a successful comeback with persistence, time, and dedication. For as the old Aesop fable goes—slow and steady wins the race.
by Brooke Shipe