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Charismatic Reptiles

May 20, 2010

To many people, snakes and lizards are not what come to mind when they think of likable wildlife. But it’s hard to find anyone with an unkind word to say about box turtles. They are the epitome of non-aggressive behavior, preferring to hide within their shells when approached too closely. If anything, we can like them too much, such as when children want to take them home and keep them as pets. Box turtles don’t do well in captivity because it’s hard to meet their natural requirements for temperature, ultraviolet light exposure and a variety of foods. As with all wildlife, they should be left in the wild where they belong and where their needs are met.

Missouri’s most common box turtle is the three-toed box turtle. The “three toes” refers to claws on the hind limbs, but the number of toes can be four on some individuals. Our other box turtle, the ornate box turtle, occurs nearly statewide but is more common in northern and western Missouri. It is distinguished from the three-toed box turtle by the brown bottom shell, the plastron, which is marked by distinctive yellow radiating lines. On warm spring days like we are having now, it is common to see these turtles on roadways. Box turtles on the move are often looking for food, water, courtship or a site to lay their eggs. Or they may just be basking on the sun-warmed pavement.

You might be surprised to learn that three-toed box turtles live an average of 40 to 50 years. One mid-Missouri three-toed box turtle was documented to be 59 years old! When I come across an obviously old box turtle, I can’t help but think that the turtle may have been on the earth longer than I have. It might make you feel differently about seeing them killed on the road. More box turtles die from vehicles than from any other cause. They are one of many Missouri wildlife species whose native ranges have become crisscrossed by streets, roads and highways. Certainly hundreds are killed each year on Missouri roads. If you can avoid hitting a turtle while driving without endangering yourself or others, please do so. The life you save may be . . . a long one.

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