The Box Turtle Diaries

I love my job. There is always something new to see, to do, to learn.  Every single day holds its moment of inherent wonder, and I hope I never lose that.

We hatch a lot of things at the zoo. Just click the “Tortoises and Turtles” tab at the top of the page if you want to see what I’ve been working with for the last three-and-a-half years. In my time, I’ve helped with the rearing of dozens of Malagasy tortoises. Today, I’ve added something new.

Back in the summer, I was in the process of closing up at the end of the day when I passed our outdoor turtle marsh and saw this:

What. You don't see it?

What. You don’t see it?

 

It’s a nest. Turtles and tortoises cover their nests really well to protect them from predators. Here’s my confession. The only way I knew it was there was because I saw Mom digging it earlier and noted the spot. The culprit was one of these:

Florida box turtle. Terrepene carolina bauri

Florida box turtle. Terrepene carolina bauri.

 

The next morning, I talked to the lead keeper. Not only was he supportive of me retrieving the eggs, he thought it would be a good experience for me to raise any offspring as well. Score! I was really pleased. The last thing I hatched on my own was a clutch of five-line skinks. That’s a cool story I’ll tell you one day. I have almost no experience with juvenile turtles, and I wanted to change that.

It didn’t take long to excavate the nest. In it, I found three eggs. Box turtle clutches average 5-8 eggs and females will lay multiple clutches in a season. I set them up in a bed of vermiculite mixed with an equal weight of water and hid them away in a secret location. And I waited. And waited. It takes anywhere from 2-4 months to hatch out a box turtle, depending on incubation temperature.

Within a few days, one egg had collapsed completely. I kept it for a while because once before, I had seen an oddly-shaped egg hatch successfully. When this one grew hair, though, I threw it out. A few weeks later, I candled the remaining eggs and saw blood vessels, a sign that the eggs were fertile. A few more weeks passed, and another egg began to indent. It, too, was bad. I candled the last egg and no longer saw blood vessels. Or anything at all. Rather than showing an embryo waving about in there, the egg was completely opaque. I haven’t given up on it yet, but it doesn’t look good. Win some, lose some.

All is not lost, however. A few weeks ago, I was out by the turtle marsh again and noted an Eastern box turtle behaving strangely. She was staring at the ground, neck craned, as if she saw something very interesting. Or tasty. I moved her aside, dug in the dirt, and look who I found! Click to enlarge.

Then, there was another. And another. The final total is four baby Eastern box turtles – Terrepene carolina carolina. They’re about the size of a quarter, but you’ll have to take my word for it. I never have change to prove it. My boss gave me permission not only to raise them, but to set up a whole exhibit for them. He didn’t have to say it twice!

Look closely to see the baby box turtle in the front.

Look closely to see the baby box turtle to the left of the fern in the front. See his yellow dotted keels?

 

The turtles are doing very well, and I get to channel my inner six-year-old and go out weekly to dig up worms and isopods for their dining pleasure.

The building these animals are housed in is part of our hibernaculum. Temperatures are gradually adjusted downward, and the turtles will soon do what they were designed to do – dig a hole in which to spend their winter. Before they are tucked in bed for the cold season, though, I will share more images with you. Because they are too cute not to! Soon. Very soon.

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17 thoughts on “The Box Turtle Diaries

  1. Love your stories! keep ’em coming.

    Sad none of the eggs made it, but it is important to tell all the nature stories because that is the odds for many species. I’m glad you don’t just tell the successes.

  2. You are so observant to see the mamma turtles looking at the ground, surveying her nest. Most of the time my painted turtles are looking at me like, “Yeah, whaddya want? Wait, you got food?” So excited to see how the babies grow up.

    • Their mothers don’t actually raise them. In fact, the female I saw was waiting to EAT them. They have a much better chance of survival if they’re head-started for a year or two indoors, and they’re such instinctive animals that they don’t habituate easily. There’s little danger that they’ll forget how to find food on their own or think people are their friends. I hope.

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