By Dan Zarlenga, Missouri Department of Conservation
May is the time when many of us start thinking about summer vacations. Some might even be planning to take to the road in an RV. Coincidentally, some reptiles are taking to the roads also, except their RVs are “built-in.” These critters are Missouri’s box turtles.
The two species of box turtles found in our area are the three-toed and the ornate box turtles. The three-toed variety is the most common. The sturdy, domed shells on their backs make natural RVs. The turtles can simply tuck inside when it’s time to sleep. As a bonus, these lucky creatures don’t even have to set up a tent or find hookups.
The three-toed box turtle has a high-domed shell with a ridge on the top. The shell is olive or brown with faint yellow or orange lines. This species often does have three toes on the hind legs. Occasionally you might encounter one with four because nature rarely likes to be predictable! These turtles live primarily in woodlands and forests but also can thrive in forest edges and brushy fields.
Ornate box turtles, on the other hand, feature shells that stand out for the many yellow lines radiating from the center of each plate. Their shells are not ridged, with the lower part and the turtle’s head and lower limbs sporting flashy yellow spots. These turtles do have that fourth toe on each hind leg. The ornate box turtles tend to live in more open areas, such as grasslands, prairies, glades, and pastures.
Turtles are often seen on roads during spring because that’s the time of year that they mate. Both ornate and three-toed box turtles are more active and on the move—males searching for females and females searching for nest sites. It’s common to see them crossing roads this time of year, especially in more rural areas or the outskirts of town.
One of the most amazing things about turtles (other than having built-in RVs, of course) is how long they can live . . . often 50 to 80 years. Their hard shells protect them from almost any predator. However, there’s one danger even a turtle’s special armor can’t defend it against—collisions with cars. Automobile strikes are a danger to turtles, especially this time of year.
As motorists, we can help our turtles by taking a few precautions. Foremost is to stay alert while driving and avoid distractions—a good idea for many reasons. If you see a turtle, and it’s safe to do so, you can take one of two actions to avoid hitting it. When traveling at slower speeds and there are no oncoming cars, slow down and steer around it. At higher speeds, it’s safer to straddle the turtle between your tires so that the center of your vehicle glides harmlessly over the animal rather than swerving to avoid it.
If you want to help the turtle, and it is safe to do so, you can pull over and carry it across the road in the same direction it was already moving.
Once you consider our fellow RV-toting turtle travelers, “share the road” takes on a whole new significance. Consider our fellow travelers and share the road this spring with these awesome reptiles, like this three-toed box turtle.