How to Rescue Box (and Other) Turtles
September 18, 2019
Over the weekend, I got a call from a local CERT member about a turtle rescue. Sharysse Frasco and her daughter Gabbi had seen an Eastern Box Turtle jaywalking in Allendale (above), and they helped it to cross.
They wanted to know if they had done the right thing, and had several other turtle-related questions. (Thanks, Sharysse and Gabbi!)
For answers, I went to David Wheeler, head of the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey.
The most active time of year to encounter box turtles tends to be May and June, when nesting season begins. Box turtles, especially females, will wander beyond their typical ranges at that time of year to look for nesting grounds.
Jokes aside, why do they cross the road?
Unfortunately, New Jersey is crisscrossed by a tremendous amount of roadways all over the state, often bisecting natural areas and habitats, so that terrestrial wildlife like box turtles often are forced to crossroads.
They offer a good example of the need for a program like Connecting Habitats Across New Jersey (CHANJ), an innovative state initiative that seeks to help animals more safely navigate New Jersey's landscape as they look for food, shelter, mates, and other needs. This program works with partnering landowners to create natural corridors that wildlife can use to avoid dangerous roadways and other threats.
What should you do if you see one crossing a road?
First of all, we encourage New Jersey drivers to drive slowly in areas where there are known turtle crossings, whether they are box turtles anywhere in the state or diamondback terrapins along coastal causeways.
And if you do see a box turtle about to cross a road, and you fear it is imminent danger of being hit by a car, be sure to bring the turtle to the side in which it is already headed. (If you move it back where it came from, it will simply try to cross the road again.) But never attempt to do this unless you are certain that you are not putting yourself at risk or risking a car accident.
One other caveat - if it is a very large turtle, it may be a snapping turtle - and these should not be handled except by trained professionals. Their name is apt for describing what their mouth does, and you do not want to be someone who gets a finger caught in their powerful jaws!
If someone does encounter a box turtle, they should report the sighting to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection through a Sighting Report form.
Above all, do not remove them from the wild! Every box turtle that is taken from the wild is one less turtle to sustain their breeding for future generations.
How do box turtles spend their winters?
Box turtles hibernate from as early as late October through March or into April. They burrow as much as two feet below the surface by digging into loose soil or sand or vegetative debris. Some even hibernate in the muddy bottoms of streams. It's still possible to encounter a box turtle during this time, as they can arise during warm spells - of which we are having more frequently in recent winters.
How long do they live (if not hit by vehicles)?
Box turtles are considered Species of Special Concern in New Jersey - that is, a species that "warrants special attention because of some evidence of decline, inherent vulnerability to environmental deterioration, or habitat modification that would result in their becoming a Threatened species."
If an individual box turtle does manage to avoid traffic, evade human collectors and wildlife predators alike, and choose a home range that remains undeveloped, then it can live as long as 20 years in the wild.
Anything you'd like to add?
Box turtles are memorable creatures to encounter on a hiking trail, in your backyard, or crossing a rural roadway. Their high-domed and intricately patterned shells are vibrant and instantly recognizable. Since they are so terrestrial, and thus not as dependent on aquatic habitats, they may be encountered further from water than most others species of turtles in New Jersey.
Sadly, they are among the species we hear of most from people anecdotally recalling that they used to see them regularly during their childhood, but rarely see them anymore. Through habitat protection and cautious driving in known nature areas, people can make a difference in helping save box turtles in New Jersey!
Thanks, David! (Above, right.)