Box Turtles in the Southern Appalachians

Published on September 25, 2014
Written by Becky Rogers

Box turtles are a common sight in the Southern Appalachians when the southern air starts to get steamy. As the weather gets colder, usually in mid-October, box turtles start looking for a place to hibernate. The Eastern box turtle found in North Carolina is on the “vulnerable” list of endangered species, so watch out when you’re driving and take care not to disturb nests if you find their eggs.

Giving Turtles a New Home

Like the people in Appalachia, box turtles don’t like to wander too far away from home. They’ll typically stick to a 750-square-foot range of where they were born. If they are taken as pets and then released into the wild somewhere else, they will die trying to find their way back home.

Box turtles, also called box tortoises, make good pets because they are usually docile and look exotic. If you do see one in your yard or out hiking and decide to domesticate it, don’t put it in a glass aquarium or other glass cage. Box turtles don’t recognize glass and may harm themselves trying to get out.

Keep the little ones away from the turtles too. Too much shaking and handling can cause stress to a turtle’s internal body. Box turtles usually won’t bite, but don’t tempt them by putting your fingers near their mouths.

Back in Spring

Once temperatures rise, usually sometime in April, hibernation is over and the turtles start digging their way out of the two-foot hole they created to survive the winter months.

You may spot a box turtle that’s alone or in a group. Learn the gender of box turtles by the color of the eyes and the hump of the shells. The dark red-brownish eyes are features of the females; while yellowish-orange eyes and a less dramatic hump in the shell are common characteristics of male box turtles.

Turtles have seven to 10 years of obstacles to overcome before they are mature enough to have babies. Once reproduction is an option, the female will have more than 100 eggs in her lifetime. The average lifetime for a box turtle in the wild hovers around 50 years, though Appalachians tell stories of box turtles living more than 100 years. Their lifespan seems to dwindle in captivity, but’s only because they aren’t well cared for. A healthy box turtle in any setting should live at least to 50.

How You Can Help

So what can you do to help them keep on keeping on? The two best ways to help our turtle friends to live long full lives are to watch for them on the roadways and not to take them home as pets.

If you find a box turtle on your property, help save it by creating a safe environment with leaves and brush. Avoid burning anything near the turtle home. You don’t need to feed your turtles; they live on worms and bugs and natural vegetation. They are particularly fond of moist leaf litter.

While there are no specific “save the box turtle” associations currently active, you can always find out more information from the National Wildlife Federation and the Humane Society.

Happy turtle trails!