I found two of these in my own backyard and the other one just outside a local park near my house. To be more accurate, my dog found all three of these turtles.
First off is perhaps a familiar sight to many in the US, a box turtle, in this case, specifically, the three-toed box turtle (Terrapene Carolina triunguis)…or wait is an ornate box turtle (Terrapene ornata)? I do not know !!!!!
A box turtle, tucking her head and legs back into her shell to avoid the paparazzi.
Box turtles are fairly common here in Missouri. Every April -July they are often seen meandering through neighborhoods or crossing roads, looking for mates and places to lay their eggs. The three-toed box turtle is even the state reptile of Missouri. They are called box turtles because they can tuck their legs and head inside their shell and close up their shell completely. They do this with a hinge on their plastron (the underside part of the shell). In other species of turtles such as the hingeback tortoises of Africa, the hinge is on the carapace (or top part of their shell). This hinge and closing of the shell allows these species to escape predators. Most turtles and tortoises are not able to close their shell completely like these guys, because most do not have hinged shells. Interestingly one turtle has found another way to avoid predators, by squeezing into tight rock crevices.
Check out more on the pancake tortoise here!
The pancake tortoise of east Africa has a light, flexible carapace that is allows it to hide in these places, it also allow them to be lighter than most turtles, and therefor they are quicker than most and are good at climbing. In fact many turtle species are actually good at climbing.
Back to our friend the box turtle. If you find a box turtle with three toes on their hind feet, it’s a good bet its is a three-toed box turtle, other species of box turtles in North America have four toes, as does the ornate….I did not get a good look at this guy so I could not tell. However, some three- toed box turtles actually have four toes, so its not the best trait for identification.
What other traits can I use to distinguish between these two species? Ornate box turtles do not have a raised ridge on their carapace whereas the three-toed does. From this picture I really do not see a ridge on top of the shell, plus the markings look more like an ornate….however, those markings can be deceiving, I have come across three-toed box turtles with pretty elaborate markings on their shell as well. According to this nifty Missouri Department of Conservation video (below), ornates often have a yellow line down their center and 3 toes do not, this guy has a broken yellow line…so leaning I am leaning towards calling it an ornate. Finally this helpful little video says to turn over the turtle…if the plastron is vividly marked with similar lines it is an ornate, the three-toed box turtles have plain plastrons… Alas, had I had this video the time I found this guy, I would have checked the underside, but I did not. So for now I am going with ornate. Box turtles got me all mixed up.
Onto something perhaps a little less hard to identify. My dog found this beauty in our backyard. This is a painted turtle, (Chyrsemys picta). Painted turtles are the one of the most widespread turtle species in North America. At first glance you may be wondering why it is called a painted turtle, often their carapace (top of shell) darkens over age and is an olive brown coloration, but flip the turtle over and you might see a colorful plastron and under edges of the top shell. Not all subspecies will have this colorful bottom shell, some subspecies have just a plain yellow/ brown plastron. But the western painted turtle (which is widespread in Missouri) does. Painted turtles also have lovely yellow lines on their neck, throat and legs. If you see a red spot or stripe on the face of the turtle you might actually be seeing the next turtle the red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta ).
Leeloo and her turtle friend, a western painted turtle, notice the drab olive, brown carapace
But then BAM! Underside of a western painted turtle, aren't they pretty!
The painted and red-eared slider are semi-aquatic spending most of their time in rivers and lakes and pond; eating aquatic plants, insects and invertebrates; and basking in the sun on logs. They both have webbed hind feet allowing them to better swim, compared to the box turtle which has adorable stubby feet, better for walking and digging. The red-eared slider is the only turtle in Missouri with a red marking on the head, so this is a good way to identify them if you are in Missouri, if you are on the southeast however, you might need to look at some other traits for a proper identification. That is because the southeastern United States has one of the highest diversities (number of species) of freshwater turtles in the world! Usually tropical areas are thought of as having the highest species diversity, but for some taxa temperate places like North America actually contain the highest diversity. In fact, the southeastern US has some of the highest diversity in freshwater fishes, turtles, salamanders and mussels.
This red-eared slider female (not the red behind the eye) is laying or about to lay eggs, I found her in a shallow muddy depression in the grass, slowing kicking her legs back and forth to move the mud.
Why are turtles and tortoise populations declining?
Sadly, turtles are also highly threatened by human activity. One of the major threats to population declines, is overexploitation by the pet trade (one reason why I am not a fan of keeping herps as pets). We usually think about exotic animals in the pet trade coming from other countries; but North American turtle populations are being decimated by poachers.
North American wood turtles, box turtles, gopher tortoises, diamondback terrapins, spotted turtles and more are highly sought after and poached species in the US to be shipped to other countries. In fact the ubiquitous red-eared slider has become so common in the pet trade, that it is now a highly invasive species outside the US .
Check out the links below for more info on the turtle trade:
On a slightly different but related note, one of the most interesting set of talks I have ever been to at a scientific conference was on the cultural, religious and ecological connectivity of wildlife conservation. It was fascinating. Here is a link to one of the presenters and his story pertaining to a Buddhist tradition of Life Release and turtles in New York City.
Turtles as pets?
I am not a proponent of keeping herps and especially turtles as pets, but I have kept some, I just generally do not seek them out as pets. Herps (lizards, turtles, snakes, salamanders and frogs) require conditions that can be hard to maintain (aquatic turtles are not for the faint of heart), some require special handling, they all require special care, many tortoises and turtles have VERY long lives, and many are often captured from the wild.
But if you feel that a herp is truly the right pet for you, please look into adopting an unwanted one. There are many herp rescues across the nation. Herps Alive is a Reptile Rescue out of Cleveland Ohio, where I obtained my Russian Tortoise. Trust me you will be surprised by what they have and what they “find” just wandering the neighborhood (escaped or abandoned pets). I included the link to their website above, but their facebook page is probably the best way to connect with them.
The New York Turtle and Tortoise Society is another amazing group of individuals helping in the rescue and rehabilitation of wildlife, conservation and public education. Here is a link to a recent article on one of the members in charge of rescue and rehab. https://nypost.com/2020/06/19/meet-the-carole-baskin-of-turtles-who-housed-600-in-nyc-apartment/
More fun links to info on herps in general
If you just want to know more about herps , both in the wild and captivity, what it requires to care for them and what conservation actions are being taken to help them, check out Afroherpkeeper on Instagram he has some really nice educational and FUN videos on herp care and conservation
If you want to go looking for herps from the comfort of your chair check out Afroherper on Instagram, she has a really fun "Find that Lizard" photo challenge.