HCT Welcomes Box Turtle Sightings

Eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina) by Janet DiMattia

The nonprofit Harwich Conservation Trust (HCT) is interested in receiving word about Harwich box turtle sightings. As the weather warms, you may see an Eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina) on your local travels and walks. Learning about the locations of local sightings helps HCT understand box turtle presence relative to conservation lands and potential areas to preserve.   

If you come across a box turtle, HCT asks for a few photos of the turtle, time and date, address/location where found, direction the turtle was traveling in, and description of the habitat.  Please send this information via email to HCT’s Outreach and Stewardship Coordinator Tyler Maikath at tyler@harwichconservationtrust.org. HCT will also send sightings to the Massachusetts Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program, which maintains a database of rare species observations. 

Please first ensure your own safety if you see a box turtle in the road. If safe to do so, cross the turtle in the direction that it’s heading by firmly grasping the turtle on the back of its carapace (top of the shell) with your thumb and fingers underneath supporting its plastron (bottom of the shell). Note that unless in imminent danger, turtles should never be moved away from where they are found to “better” locations, as they will attempt to return to their home range.

“When folks donate to HCT, they’re actually proactively preserving prime box turtle habitat that give these shy creatures a chance to safely find food, nest, and shelter. A review of East Coast box turtle tracking studies reveals that home ranges, on average, can vary from less than two acres to more than a dozen acres. Several of the woodland properties preserved by HCT are in this acreage range. Right now, we’re actually striving to raise the remaining $225,000 for the last 6.65 acres of the Sand Pond Woodlands conservation assemblage. Otherwise, those 6.65 acres could be occupied by a 7-lot subdivision, which would negatively impact box turtles, other wildlife, and the water quality of Sand Pond and Herring River,” said Michael Lach, HCT Executive Director.

In the past several years, HCT has been successful in preserving much larger landscapes including the 49-acre Pleasant Bay Woodlands and 17-acre Muddy Creek Headwaters Preserve. HCT also watches for opportunities to preserve land that expands existing conservation areas like the Town Bell’s Neck Conservation Lands. In addition, HCT regularly monitors conservation lands to understand habitat changes including the presence of invasive plants. Ongoing land stewardship is vital for maintaining habitat diversity, which is important for box turtles as well as a variety of species.

Photo: Sally Urbano

Box Turtle Facts from the Massachusetts Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program:

Eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina) is a terrestrial turtle, inhabiting many types of habitats. It is found in both dry and moist woodlands, brushy fields, thickets, marsh edges, bogs, swales, fens, and stream banks.

The box turtle earned its name because a natural hinge on the lower shell (plastron) allows it to pull its head, legs, and tail inside the upper shell (carapace) and plastron.

Box turtles overwinter in upland forest, a few inches under the soil surface, typically covered by leaf litter or woody debris. As soil temperatures drop, the turtles burrow into soft ground.

In summer, adult box turtles are most active in the morning and evening, particularly after a rainfall. To avoid the heat of the day, they often seek shelter under rotting logs or masses of decaying leaves, in mammal burrows, or in mud. They often scoop out a “form” (a small domelike space) in leaf litter, grasses, ferns, or mosses where they spend the night.

Hatchling photo by Michael Lach

They are omnivorous, feeding on animal matter such as slugs, insects, earthworms, snails, and even carrion. Box turtles also have a fondness for mushrooms, berries, fruits, leafy vegetables, roots, leaves, and seeds.

Females reach sexual maturity at approximately 13 years of age. Mating is opportunistic and may take place anytime between April and October. Females nest in June or early July and can travel great distances to find appropriate nesting habitat. They may travel up to approximately 1,600 meters (one mile), many of them crossing roads during their journey. Females typically start nesting in the late afternoon or early evening and continue for up to five hours.

The male box turtle almost always has red eyes, and females have yellowish-brown or sometimes dark red eyes.