Monday, March 13, 2017

A new-to-me wildlife discovery!

When Ralph called me over to point out the turtle he’d found, I should have recognized it right away. Box turtles are not uncommon. In fact, these distinctly marked land turtles might be the most familiar terrapins in North America. And yet, my initial reaction was uncertainty.

“I’m not sure what kind of turtle it is,” I announced. “I’ll have to look it up.”

“I think it’s a box turtle,” Ralph suggested, but I smugly ignored his comment.

A box turtle? Really?

It didn’t take much research to realize he was right. The dome-shelled reptile Ralph discovered beneath the cover of a dense thicket at our New Smyrna Beach lot was indeed a box turtle. Terrapene carolina bauri is one of six box turtle subspecies found in the United States and Mexico. However, as it turned out, it was a box turtle with a difference. 

Hello there, Florida box turtle!

Like the Florida scrub-jay, an endemic bird that does not exist anywhere except Central Florida’s sandhill terrain, Terrapene carolina bauri is also a habitat-specific organism found only in certain parts of peninsular Florida. This 4 to 7-inch long land turtle spends most of its life slowly meandering across moist habitats like marshes, swamps and damp forests. Although it doesn’t swim, it occasionally spends time soaking in water.

The Florida scrub-jay is an endemic bird existing only
in certain parts of Central Florida

The Florida box turtle also differs from other box turtles by not hibernating. Instead of sleeping through winter, this subspecies continues to hunt for the slugs, earthworms, beetles, crickets, flies and spiders that make up about 60-percent of a diet that also consists of berries, moss, mushrooms, roots and flowers.

I was also surprised to learn that the sharp claws on its short, strong legs are good for climbing as well as digging. The ability to clamber over objects is an attribute I don’t usually associate with turtles but then again,Terrapene carolina bauri is special.

Another unique feature of this yellow striped, dark-shelled turtle is the way its shell is hinged so it can safely conceal soft, vulnerable body parts when endangered. Although my husband was focused on raking up debris when he noticed the turtle, he was careful not to disturb his discovery.

Later in the day when I came back to check on the progress of his project, I asked if the turtle was still there.

“It is,” he said explaining that it only moved a little deeper into the thicket from where it had been before.

That’s not surprising since the home range of a Florida box turtle is only around 750 feet. It may not travel far but what it lacks in miles covered, it gains in longevity. Terrapene carolina bauri can live 50 to 100 years!

I learned much from Ralph’s discovery of a turtle in the underbrush. Not only did his find lead me to look up and become aware of a new-to-me Florida endemic species, it also acted as a helpful reminder not to ignore my spouse. When it comes to plants and wildlife, my husband knows more than I give him credit for.

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