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Texas Box Turtle….A Good Pet for You?

Posted April 07, 2011

In our hurried world, we can be intrigued or frustrated by the pace of the Texas box turtle.  Most of us have seen this reptile making its way across a country road or paved highway.  You can stop and help it cross the road or, take it home for a pet.  Question is, "Which is the better choice?"

"Turtles are some of the oldest reptiles on the earth," notes Dr. J. Jill Heatley, clinical associate professor at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences.  "They are slow-moving, but these creatures have survived virtually unchanged for thousands of years."

"The box turtle is a land animal that can also swim well," states Heatley.  "It spends its life around water, marshes or wetlands.  It is an air-breathing animal, toothless and reproduces by laying eggs.  Generally, you can distinguish male from female box turtles based on the color of their eyes.  Males have bright orange to reddish iris color while females have brown to tan iris color."

The box turtle is characterized by a high domed shell that hinges so the turtle can enclose itself, thus the fitting name of box turtle, notes Heatley.  Box turtles eat vegetation as well as insects, slugs, snails and dead flesh.

Will this terrestrial creature survive the fast paced world of today?  Can it "out-pace" today's human desires for exotic pets, run-ins with automobiles and loss of habitat?

"Turtles can make good pets, but taking a turtle from the wild and placing it in your home may lead to a slow death for the animal," cautions Heatley.  "Like any pet, turtles require daily attention, care and have specific nutritional and environmental needs."

"Relocating the native turtle to your home can be detrimental to the animal.  Turtles establish home ranges and they will try to return to their home territory.  If removed from it, they may travel long distances looking for familiar grounds. This is sometimes called 'homing'.  In the process they may come in contact with predators, unsuitable habitat, or they may lose the race while trying to cross the highway."

The most common question I get asked is, 'What do I do if I see a turtle crossing the road?', says Heatley.  She recommends pulling your vehicle safely to the side of the road and put on your hazard lights.  When you can safely approach the turtle based on traffic, pick the turtle up by the back of the shell and place it off the road in the same direction that it was headed.  Injured turtles may be brought to the college of veterinary medicine at any time for care and repair.

Resist the temptation to "adopt" a turtle from the wild.  The box turtle confines its activities to a small area (several acres) for its home range and breeding ground.  Once removed from this territory, many displaced turtles fail to establish a new home range and few find their way back to their original home range, explains Heatley.

Since the box turtle is long-lived with a life span of 20 years or more, they experience delayed sexual maturity (anywhere from 7 to 10 years).  This turtle species requires a long life span and high population density to increase its population.  A box turtle must survive lawn mowers, farm machinery, predators and crossing roads during its growth years before it can add to the species.

The box turtle is also threatened by the pet trade, notes Heatley.  As more people collect box turtles as pets or to sell to others as pets, the turtle's population density would be expected to decline.  If levels get too low, box turtles will not be able to sustain their numbers.

"Since box turtles take a long time to reach sexual maturity, live in a limited home range and produce a small number of eggs in each clutch, this animal is hard pressed when additional pressures are encountered," explains Heatley.  "It is for these reasons that harvesting adult box turtles from the wild for pets is a concern."

In our hurried and fast-paced world, if you make the time to look for the Texas box turtle, may you continue to find them in their natural setting, may you marvel at this centuries-old creature who is trying to survive in an ever changing world.  Remember that it is best to leave the Texas box turtles on their home range.




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