Sunday was another big work day for us, but we took a couple of breaks for what were the smallest box turtle as well as the largest male boxy that we’ve seen in Mountaintown. It was also an object lesson in that “box turtles are found where they’re found.”
It was already warm by nine a.m. when I retrieved our extension ladder from where it hangs underneath our deck. Box turtles were really the last things on my mind as I stepped around to lift the ladder off its rack. I just happened to look down…
…where I found this tot near one of the posts under the deck. It probably would have hatched last autumn but overwintered in its natal nest until emerging this spring. At less than two inches, it doesn’t get the special ID marks. Nevertheless, it gets photographed, weighed, and measured before it is sent on its way. Good luck, little one….
By 1 p.m., it was pushing 90 degrees – the kind of temps at which most box turtles are headed for a cool refugium. I’d just dropped off a load of things at the shed when I glanced over at the bank and see…
…this big guy trying to hunker down in a few leaves on what was a sun-scorched bank not 75 yards from the little one.
To describe him as a “big guy” is something of an understatement. At 546 grams, he is the largest male that I’ve caught in the watershed. It’s also a whopping 27 times larger than this morning’s find.
And “big” isn’t the all of it. He’s also fairly old. We don’t see many that have been around so long that their “annular rings” are all but worn off.
By the way, describing that stack of scales as “annular rings” is something of a redundancy and, for some, a misnomer. They’re described as “annular” since they’re like rings. Indeed they do look something like tree rings. However, the “annular” doesn’t mean that they add one ring each year. We count the rings but we can’t rely on them as an infallible gauge of age. Box turtles may add an additional ring or two in years when resources are good, and may almost skip a ring in years when things are lean.
I’m going to make a guess about why it had stopped to shelter under some dry leaves rather than climbing further up and over the bank to rest in the dark shade of the hemlocks and a fallen oak. For when we gave it an exam, we found that…
…it was missing some toes. Further examination revealed that
its left leg was functional. However, the turtle couldn’t withdraw the leg into the shell. That’s a distinct problem for a box turtle. They count on being able to completely enclose themselves in order to be safe from predators. If a limb is exposed, then it’s subject to being chewed upon by a predator. That’s particularly true of a forelimb. If the turtle can’t withdraw a forelimb to shut the front of the shell, then the head and other leg are exposed. And they’re particularly vulnerable during brumation, or the reptilian winter resting period. They burrow down and become immobile to the point that they can’t fight or flee from predators. So, what happened? Was there some injury or infection that immobilized the leg? And once the leg couldn’t be withdrawn, did some mouse chew off the toes? Or did the turtle incur the leg injury and the amputation in one instance?
Hmm…. We will never know. But this may answer why it chose to hunker down beneath some rather thin cover on a very hot bank. If I were to guess, it may have climbed as best it could with a partially-damaged limb before it just decided to take whatever shelter it could under an un-remitting August sun.
He got a few minutes in a shady garage while he got the “Mountaintown monitoring treatment” and his own special ID mark. Then, I gave him a quick ATV ride back to where I found him. I did take him an additional 10 feet along its route of travel. That let me put him under a nice pile of dried oak leaves in the shade of a big hemlock. He seemed to like it. Good luck to you, too. Hopefully some of the genes that saw you through so many years are also in that toddler.
Updated 08/10/2015 to fix some erroneous math.