Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Readers Write In: What is this Texas Turtle?

I live north of Houston, TX. The other day I was raking up leaves and noticed something moving around in the leaves. Looked thru the pile and found a turtle. I brought it in the house put it in a large bin. I was wanting to know what kind of turtle it is? Would it be ok to keep it as a pet for my kids?

Thank you,

Melinda L.
Houston, Texas

The first thing we notice about this turtle is the striking yellow and orange pattern on the shell. This is enough to immediately identify it as a Box Turtle (i.e., a turtle within the Terrapene genus). But, the domed shell and head shape are all characteristic of this group of animals as well. 

Box Turtles are different from many turtles we encounter because they are terrestrial. Although they might take an occasional dip in the water, they spend most of their lives on land (although I did once find one swimming across the Emory River in Tennessee).

These turtles meander through their habitats foraging on fruits, mushrooms, insects, and other odds and ends. Their travels can take them over a mile or so (> 1 km) but they generally have established areas where they spend their time. Because they are wandering around a lot, they may often travel across roads (or into yards), where they are frequently run over or relocated by Good Samaritans hoping to move the turtle to a safer area.

Unfortunately, moving Box Turtles isn't a great way to keep them safe. Because they have established areas that they use (and have spent years or decades walking around), a relocated turtle could be disoriented and move around more than usual or even try walking back to where it came from. These increased movements make them even more vulnerable to crossing roads.

I generally think it is best to avoid turning wild animals into pets and I asked Melinda to consider the change the turtle would experience going from a life wandering around the woods to one where it is confined to a small bin. I also told her about how when I was young I had a "two-week rule". I was allowed to keep any creature I found, including turtles, for a maximum of two weeks. Then, it had to be released. I think that's a good compromise between curious children and an animal's wild ways. Melinda agreed that strategy would work for them.

I also asked Melinda one more question. I wanted to know how many toes this turtle had. There are two species of Box Turtles living around eastern Texas: the Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina) and the Ornate Box Turtle (Terrapene ornata). One straightforward way of telling them apart is the number of toes on their back feet. Easterns have three toes on each back foot while Ornates have four toes on each back foot. This turtle had three, therefore I'm going to call it an Eastern Box Turtle.

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