Box Turtles Coming Out of Their Shells

By University of Arkansas

First posted on 05-22-2009

By Pryor Jordan for the Cooperative Extension Service

Arkansas’ Eastern and Western box turtles are relatively safe most of the year, hibernating in their shells through winter months or foraging through the brush, eating plants and insects in the summer and fall. But a few months after they come out of hibernation, they race – as best they can – through forests and across roads, putting their lives at risk for the chance to find a mate.

“As with most reptiles, they are becoming very active in mating this time of year,” said Rex Roberg, an extension wildlife biologist with the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture. “When males begin looking for females, they’re much more apt to cross our paths.”

Little is seen of Arkansas box turtles until they reach sexual maturity at 7-10 years, though research indicates that egg-laying season is from mid-May to mid-June, said Stanley Trauth, a biology professor at Arkansas State University. However, in a female turtle’s lifetime, only two or three of her offspring ever make it to adulthood.

The average life span of a box turtle is 25-30 years, though it’s not uncommon for some to live to age 40 or 50.

“There’s a report of an eastern box turtle living 130 years,” Trauth said.

For adult box turtles, traffic is one of the largest contributors to their mortality, Roberg said. When a turtle finds itself on pavement or concrete, it often gets confused and retreats into its shell, becoming a lump in the road for motorists to dodge.

“I would recommend that if you’re in an area where there’s no traffic that you get them off the road,” Roberg said. “They’re harmless and will hide in their shell when they’re disturbed and you can pick them up and move them where you want to.”

Moving a turtle, even far away from where it’s found, will hardly bother it.

“Box turtles are known to have a homing instinct,” Roberg said. “They tend to return to their place of birth, even if they’ve been moved far away.”

Box turtles are also prone to end up on sidewalks and in corners of homes and businesses where they can become confused.

“They just follow their noses and end up in a place they’re not familiar with, and they’re not the greatest at figuring out how to get out of that,” Roberg said.

Many end up as pets in someone’s home – another large mortality factor for turtles..

“Turtles should hibernate annually,” but usually don’t when kept as pets, Roberg said. “If you’re going to keep a turtle as a pet, you need to do some research on how to take care of it.”

It’s important for the owner to do a little research on how to keep them healthy, he said. They likely won’t hibernate in captivity, but with a proper diet, they can still live for many years.

About half of a turtle’s food needs to come from high-protein sources, such as worms, crickets, grasshoppers, slugs or other insects. A little dry dog food, fish food, goldfish or sardines will also suffice when insects aren’t available. The other half of a box turtle’s diet should consist of plants, like tomatoes, strawberries, apples, grapes or vegetables.