Thursday, July 9, 2015

Phenology: Box Turtles

After yet another cool, damp night, with rain showers, today's weather is expected to change...snapping right back to typical July temperatures. From 69 degrees (high humidity, clouds, distant thunder, a brief power outage) around 6 a.m. when I woke up at the Cat Sanctuary, the temperature had climbed to 82 by 9 a.m. when I met a neighbor in Gate City and came out here. I am now sitting in a basement office that has no windows and can look dreary, but generally stays close to earth temperature, so I don't know what the rest of Kingsport is going through. Probably not much fun.

Wildflowers haven't changed much since yesterday: abundant chicory, plentiful clover, daisies, Queen Anne's Lace, native vetch, mimosas, brassicas, occasional clumps of day lilies. I didn't see any sweet peas in bloom this morning.

What I did see that I don't usually see on the road were box turtles. Plural. Two of them, with different markings, were standing about a mile apart beside Route 23, looking as if they intended to cross the road.

How would a box turtle know about rush hour? How would a box turtle know that, these days, the morning rush hour lasts approximately until the afternoon rush hour begins? A box turtle might be able to walk across Route 23 at night without being smashed. Not in the daytime. Although we still see quite a few of them, box turtles as a species are seriously threatened by motorists.

In an experimental spirit, I left the first turtle, the one with roundish patches of orange in the middles of its dull brown scutes, where I saw it. (It was as timid as an animal of its size ought to be, and pulled its head in as I approached.) It seemed to have left a wooded hollow and approached the road for its own obscure reasons.

I picked up the second one, who had irregular lines of dark brown forming an interesting abstract pattern all across his yellowish carapace, not unlike a ripe banana. (He was a bold macho-type turtle, and kept his head out, displaying his beady little red eyes--a male characteristic--and even clicking his beak, as I approached.) He was standing below a bluff that looked too steep for him to climb. I thought he might have slid down the bluff in the storm, and might be willing to go back to the woods on the side of the bluff, so I carried him ten or fifteen yards and set him down on the grass facing away from the highway. Next time I walk west on Route 23, I'll remember those two distinctive shells, and hope to see neither of them.

Scutes are the plates of bone that fuse to form a turtle's shell. The upper dome is the carapace; the lower plate is called the plastron. The turtle I picked up tried to lock his plastron and carapace together, but apparently wasn't able to get them together because his own weight was holding his plastron down. He didn't pull his head and legs all the way into his shell. If I'd been within his limited range of head movement I'm sure he would have bitten me. He seemed surprised and pleased to be set down gently in the grass.

From whence, very likely, he's toddled back to the edge of the highway by now. Turtles are famous for moving slowly and don't seem to think much faster than they walk. They want to go where they want to go. They might accept a different destination, or they might not, depending on what they were looking for.

What would really help turtles would be for humans to stop rushing for so many hours of the day. That might be good for humans, too, actually. We could decide to drive at paces that allow us to look for turtles, stop, get out, and carry turtles across the roads they seem to want to cross, rather than paces that make it hard to avoid smashing turtles.

Here's a web site to which this web site has linked before, with nice, clear, yet simple and fast-loading pictures of a variety of box turtles:

A Google search for box turtles pulled up a sponsored link advertising "where to get a box turtle" for a pet. That school-sponsored link emphasizes that a threat to box turtle populations is children trying to keep the animals as pets. Turtles aren't cuddly and often don't survive when trapped in human houses. They can, however, learn not to be afraid of humans, and, unlike "pet" snakes, turtles are unlikely to attack humans. If you have the kind of yard or garden that attracts box turtles, they're the ultimate low-maintenance "pets"; they live outdoors, find their own food, will probably stay for years, and can become "friendly." Some people think box turtles may be capable of feeling affection toward humans. About the only way they show this "affection" is by sitting on a human friend's knee in the sun, thus treating him or her like an honorary log, but who's to say that the turtle doesn't like logs, or humans who behave like logs for it?

More fun facts about the Eastern box turtle: