While I was weed-whacking outside the fence, I uncovered a small common box turtle (Terrapene carolina)—thankfully I was aiming high! Then I found another, larger one inside the fence on a path.
She (I think) gave me a stink eye.
I’ve seen a few on roads and such lately, so I wondered when they lay eggs, here is what I found out. Interestingly, females can store sperm for up to four years, so they don’t have to meet up every year. Females dig a hole in the leaf litter and lay up to 11 eggs between May and June. Around 70 days later, the babies hatch slowly and spend the next three to four years under the leaf litter and rotten logs, eating pill bugs, spiders, crickets, etc. After they start going “above ground”, they transition to a mostly vegetarian diet.
The population has been in decline due to habitat loss and the pet trade. Losing habitat is made worse because of the turtles’ instincts; box turtles develop a map in their heads of their territory. They know where to find food in each season, which ephemeral streams might have water in the hot summer, and most importantly how to return to their nesting site. When it’s time to find a mate or lay eggs, they take a straight path to their preferred locations.
If you want to help them, take pictures of the ones you find, pick them up carefully and show your traveling companions, and then set them back where you found them. If you see one in the road and you can safely stop, be sure to place it on the other side rather than just turning it around on the side it came from.
Even being moved a few hundred yards will make them lose their place on their map, and they will wander around trying to find a familiar landscape. Relocation to an entirely new area can often mean starving to death. So please, resist the urge to bring a cute turtle home for a few days for the kids, or worse take it home for a pet; they don’t do well in captivity for the same reason.
At home, if you see a turtle trekking across your property, try to make sure there are no barriers on its path. Pull up fencing to make a small hole at ground level, for instance. Keep an eye out for those little dome shapes when you move your car or mow your grass during this time of year.
For a bit more fun, go to Carolina Herp Atlas and log in your find! This site takes data from sightings all over the state and uses it in scientific analysis.