Researchers Seeking Answers To The Box Turtle's Slow Demise

Researchers Seeking Answers To The Box Turtle's Slow Demise
By Rex Springston, Richmond Times-Dispatch, June 30, 2007
Hampton Roads Virginia Daily Press

Charles City, -- The dead walk among us.

Actually, they crawl.

They are box turtles--gentle, softball-sized animals that can live to be more than 100.

Loved even by people who find other reptiles creepy--many Virginians have kept them as pets--the land-dwelling turtles are dying out as we develop their forests and crush them with our cars.

You can still find the eastern box turtle across Virginia, particularly during a summer rain, which gets them moving in search of earthworms, insects and other food.

But because they live so long, a few individuals can give the impression that a healthy population inhabits your neighborhood.

The truth is, you may be seeing the last survivors of a doomed group that no longer produces young that survive.

"We call them populations of the living dead," said Joseph C. Mitchell, a University of Richmond biologist.

Raccoons, thriving in part because we serve them takeout from our trash cans, dig up and eat the turtles' eggs. Raccoons, dogs and other predators kill young turtles.

At Virginia Commonwealth University's wooded Charles City County tract called the Rice Center, scientists are conducting an experiment that may help save these imperiled animals.

Some people sweat to the oldies. "We're sweating to the turtles," said J.D. Kleopfer as he trudged through the Rice Center forest on a recent steamy morning.

Kleopfer, a reptile expert for the state Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, held an antenna before him as he zigged and zagged through the woods. A series of ever-sharper beeps told him he was closing in on a box turtle with a
watch-size transmitter glued to its back.

As part of a study that began in May, Kleopfer was tracking turtles to learn when and where they travel.

When a forest is about to be bulldozed, well-meaning people sometimes catch box turtles and put them in another woods miles away.

Experts believe that doesn't work. The displaced animals become homing turtles, taking off like a shot--a very slow shot--for their former home. They usually end up dead on the highway or picked up by people who take them home.

In the study, scientists will first learn how these local turtles move in their natural territory. Seven are wired with transmitters.

So far, the work shows that some stay in the same place for days, while others wander hundreds of feet looking for food, a mate or whatever else a turtle wants.

Later--possibly next year or the year after--box turtles from other areas will be put in an outdoor pen, held for several months and then released.

The thinking is that, like a cat you take in for a few days, the turtles may decide to stay put.

Box turtles have been studied a lot, but little is known about how they adapt to this sort of detention, Kleopfer said.

If the hold-and-release method works, it could show conservationists how to move box turtles from development sites before the bulldozers roll in.

The forest smelled like damp earth as Kleopfer pushed past branches and spider webs. Crickets chorused, and a distant wood thrush sang its flutelike song.

Kleopfer came to a patch of wild grapes, with leaves that blanketed the forest floor to about calf-high. The beeping transmitter said the quarry--romantically named turtle 103--was hiding nearby.

Kleopfer pulled back some leaves and uncovered the turtle, blinking like an old man awakened from a nap.

"Look at him," Kleopfer said. "He's not happy. He says, doggone it, I keep hiding, and they keep finding me."

Ricky Davis, a game-department intern, recorded the precise location electronically, and turtle 103 was left in his grape-leaf lair.

Why all the concern over box turtles?

Kleopfer said they are as important as Civil War monuments or historic buildings. "They are part of our legacy as Virginians."

They can be startlingly attractive in their Halloween colors _ orange and black, or yellow and brown. They stare at you with determined mouths and bright eyes--orange in males, brown in females. They rarely, if ever, bite.

"Snapping turtles look prehistoric and menacing, and they can bite like hell," said UR's Mitchell. "Box turtles look like little tanks running around in your yard, and they're sweethearts."

Box turtles are like people in some ways, Mitchell said. They can live to a ripe age; the females don't begin to reproduce until they hit their teens; and they don't reproduce every year.

That makes the turtles' fate all the more heartbreaking. When a forest is cleared for development, Mitchell said, these animals that have lived there for decades are buried alive or crushed.

"It's a very sad story," he said.

To see some of the box turtles fixed with transmitters by Kleopfer, reptile expert for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, click here.