2012-09-11 / Columns

The Bright Side

Turtle Or Tortoise?
by Annie Bright

Wandering around northern Owen County the other day, I drove down a narrow gravel road. I was driving slowly, enjoying the autumn-like weather. In the sunny spots brilliant red sumac leaves hung over the road. The golden rod and white top was blooming too. The recent rains had brought life back to some of the trees and shrubs. I rounded a curve and saw a good sized rock in the middle of the road. Just as I moved over to the side to avoid hitting it, the rock starting moving. Stopping the car alongside the rock, I discovered the rock was really a box turtle. I haven’t seen many of these reptiles this summer. Twenty years ago, it was not unusual to see two or three crossing the road on a trip into town. Like toads and frogs, snakes and other ground hugging critters, their numbers are dwindling. This is largely do to the interference of humans, loss of habitat, pollution and death by cars.

Have you ever wondered what the difference is between a turtle and a tortoise? Turtles are an order, or large group, of reptiles. This order is divided into smaller families. One of these families of turtles is the tortoise family. So, all tortoises are turtles, but all turtles are not tortoises. To confuse things further there are land turtles and sea turtles. There are giant tortoises and small ones. The Galapagos tortoise that lives on islands off Ecuador is perhaps the most famous tortoise. They often weigh more than 500 pounds and can live to be 150 years old. The Indianapolis Zoo used to let the kids ride on the ones they kept.

While turtles and tortoises have many things in common and scientifically come from the same classification, there are some differences. Tortoises are turtles that are strictly land animals. Tortoises have steep-sided carapaces, and thick scales on their heads and forelegs. Tortoises are found on all continents and a few islands. Unlike sea turtles, tortoises live only on land. Like the leopard tortoise, tortoises have big, heavy shells that are shaped like domes. And unlike sea turtles, they can hide inside their shells for protection. When they’re frightened, tortoises just tuck their heads and tails inside their shells. Some tortoises also tuck their feet in. Other tortoises pull their front feet over their heads.

Tortoises move very slowly on land. They are the slowest of all turtles. In fact, they are the slowest of all reptiles. But in spite of being slow, the stout, short legs and feet of the tortoise are just right for walking on dry grass and rough ground. They take drinks and short baths at watering holes, but they prefer walking about on land. Unlike turtles, they do not need to live near a water source such as a stream or pond. They would easily drown if they were in deeper water due to their weight and lack of webbed feet. Their stump-like feet allow them to walk on land and rocky areas and dig burrows, which they go into when it is too hot for them.

The small creature I saw crossing the road was Terrapene carolina, the eastern box turtle. They resemble tortoises, because they have a domed carapace. However they are land turtles and more closely related to aquatic turtles, like the common painted turtle. There is only one family of land turtles. When first hatched the eastern box turtles are only 1.25 inches long. I’ve never seen a box turtle that small. The experts say they are very secretive. They hide in the brush and leaf litter and feed on insects. The number of life forms that make their homes in the leaf litter of the forest is amazing. We should all do Mother Nature a favor and let the leaf litter accumulate in one corner of our yards. Finding a box turtle before it is three or four inches long is rare as they seldom expose themselves to predators or people. Box turtles do not travel far, usually living within a small area covering two to four acres their entire lives. They have a built in homing device and will try to return to their home area if removed. That is why we should never pick one up and carry it home with us. It is best to let them proceed on their way or put them across the road in the direction they are going.

Box turtles are some of the slowest to reproduce species in the world. They do not become sexually mature until they are about 10 years old, by then they are around six inches long. The female lays three to six eggs in the spring in a shallow nest and wanders off. Once they hatch, the youngsters are on their own. If they don’t meet an untimely death on the road, they can live for several decades.

Anyone who has ever picked one up can tell you that they have a hinge on the bottom. Their plastron hinge allows the lower shell to close tightly against the carapace. They often do this when you pick them up, drawing their head, legs and tail inside for protection. Not all eastern box turtles look alike. The patterns on their backs can be distinctly different in color and pattern, which is confusing for amateur naturalists. The males usually have redder eyes than the females. There is something very interesting that I did not know until I read about them to check my facts. They eat poisonous mushrooms, but the toxins make their meat poisonous to humans.

‘til next time,

Annie

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