Shell Shocked:


Picking raspberries for breakfast on a moist morning early this summer, I came within a hair of stepping on an elderly male box turtle I first encountered on my homestead in 1995. I call him MG 75 because that‚s what I found carved on his shell when I first picked him up. MG 75 is a minor celebrity; I‚ve written lots of stories about him. For several successive years after our first encounter I continued to run into him. Our paths invariably crossed under the mulberry tree, where my garden and raspberry patch bump up against one another. His poor table manners belie his expedition‚s purpose: his chin is always smeared with gummy brown slug remains or seedy berry residue.

Between 1995-98, I saw him at least once a year. We missed each other in 1999, but he was back in the fall of 2000. By then he‚d lost part of the horny plate where the message had been carved˜all that‚s left now is the 5˜exposing the bone of his shell. It was the end of a dry summer; his skin looked parched. So I treated him to soak in bowl of water. He drank deeply and, though he‚s a land turtle, seemed to enjoy sitting in the water. I looked for him in 2001 and again last year, and never saw him. I knew he was an old turtle from the condition of his shell and the bleached appearance of his eyes. A male box turtle‚s eyes are normally bright red (females have brown eyes), but MG‚s were bloodshot, like someone coming off a bender. When he didn‚t show up two years running, I became convinced that he‚d succumbed. So our reunion this year thrilled me, though I can‚t say it did much for him. When I picked him up to carry him to the house (to get my camera), he didn‚t retreat into his shell. Instead he oared the air energetically, scratching my arm with the long toenails of his hind legs. The fable about the tortoise and hare notwithstanding, a box turtle whose flee response has been triggered can melt into the landscape in no time flat. Their dark shells, splashed with bright yellow blotches, look gaudy on grass, but they‚re perfect camouflage in dappled light.

Eastern box turtles (Terrapene carolina carolina) like MG 75 belong to one of seven turtle species native to the Southern Appalachians. Along with common snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina serpentina), they are the species you will most likely to see (often attempting frequently with fatal results to cross roads that bisect their home ranges). Box turtles are the longest-lived vertebrates on the North American continent; they’re capable of surviving more than a century. They’re homebodies, with a good sense of direction. Removed as much as three-fourths of a mile from their home range, they can find their way back. Omnivorous, they enjoy many foodstuffs, including some we can’t stomach, including poisonous mushrooms (a good reason, if you needed one, not to eat a box turtle). Perhaps because they don’t often encounter one another, females are capable of storing viable sperm for up to four years.

Our other turtle species the eastern musk turtle or stinkpot (Sternotherus odoratus), stripe-necked musk turtle (Sternotherus minor peltifer), bog turtle (Glyptemys muhlenbergii), eastern painted turtle (Chrysemys picta picta), and eastern spiny softshell turtle (Trionyx spinifer spinifer) are less commonly encountered. In fact, three of our seven turtles are state and/or federally listed: bog turtles as threatened; eastern spiny softshells and stripe-necked musk turtles as North Carolina species of special concern.

Turtles have been in the news in North Carolina recently, thanks to passage of a state law protecting most species from commercial collection and sale. The law, signed into law by Gov. Mike Easley on May 31, went into effect on July 1. It makes possession of more than four individuals of the protected species a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $200. (Transportation of a protected species across state lines is a federal offense, increasing the severity of the penalty.) Wildlife officers charged with enforcing the new law were trained in Scute Camps (so called for the plates that make up turtle shells) this summer, to help them identify the 11 freshwater and land turtle species now protected by law.

Only four turtle species in the state remain unprotected. Of the four snappers, eastern and striped mud turtles and common musk turtles the latter three are small and not favored by the pet or food trade, says Alvin Braswell, curator of reptiles for the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences. Though it’s now unlawful to take, possess, collect, transport, purchase or sell five or more individual turtles or terrapins belonging to the Emydidae and Trionchidae families, exceptions are made for licensed veterinarians, zoos operated by governmental entities, and scientific and educational researchers.

Statistics showing that the commercial harvest of turtles was skyrocketing spurred passage of the law. Until July 1, anyone who paid $5 for an annual permit could collect unlimited numbers of turtles not state or federally listed, though permittees were required to report their take. Those numbers were negligible until last year. Only 460 turtles were commercially collected in 2000, and 1,600 in 2001.) But in 2002 more than 23,000 NC turtles were harvested˜a single collector from Louisiana accounted for 17,000 of them and all 12 collectors reporting last year had reapplied for permits in 2003. Braswell, feeling that the numbers were unsustainable, took the data to the NC Wildlife Resources Commission’s Nongame Wildlife Advisory Committee. It was their unanimous consent that something needed to be donein a hurry. Turtle populations depend on the longevity of adults, he says.”They can’t cope with that level of taking. It may take 40 to 50 years to build up a good turtle population in a lake. In two days, a collector could take most of them.

Where were all those North Carolina turtles going? We don‚t have a mechanism to track individual turtles as to where they are going, and collectors aren’t necessarily forthcoming about where they are pushing their wares, Braswell says. While the pet trade accounts for some of the market, most turtles are sold to be eaten in Asia or in Asian markets in the United States. Because they’re a traditional Asian food, many Southeast Asian species have become critically endangered, so buyers have been casting their nets further and further afield. North American turtles are showing up now in food markets in Japan, China, Hong Kong, Vietnam, and other Southeast Asian countries, Braswell says.

Rather than wait for turtle species to get into trouble, the new law provides „a mechanism by which non game species can be proactively managed, Braswell says. “We’re not here to lock things up, to deny the use of resources. The goal is to use them in a wise manner, not to overtax them. The new law not only protects specific species, it gives the WRC power to regulate harvest and possession of currently unprotected reptiles and amphibians. If, for example, harvest of snapping turtles becomes unsustainable, the WRC can move in.

With the new law in place, Braswell hopes that won’t be necessary; it may not be economically feasible for out-of-state collectors to come here just for snappers. Snappers are harder to get at than sliders and cooters, who stack themselves like hubcaps on partially submerged logs in ponds and lakes to bask. Still, snappers have been running into problems further north, where they grow more slowly and lay fewer eggs. Maine has banned their harvest and other states have restricted the season on them, he says. Snappers weren’t protected by the new law because it was felt that there was time to go through the normal regulatory process if the need arose to protect them.

For the time being, anyone with a $5 permit can collect as many NC snappers as he can lay hands on, though snappers characterized by Roger Conant, in A Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians, as large fresh-water turtles with short tempers and long tails will bite the hand that would feed them to someone else. Unlike box turtles, whose hinged lower shells (plastrons) allow them to close up completely, they have very small plastrons that leave their soft body parts exposed. To compensate, they’re are aggressive, using their large heads and powerful jaws to keep enemies at bay. Snappers never reach deliberately for an object to bite it, but strike with the lightning speed and power of a big rattlesnake, Archie Carr says in his Handbook of Turtles. “The innate urge to strike is present in the hatchling, and may even be demonstrated by babies not altogether free of their eggshells.”

That’s probably because a baby snapper‚s first order of business after hatching is to reach the safety of water, a sometimes difficult undertaking, since a female snapper may travel considerable distances before excavating the nests in which she lays 20-40 eggs. Interestingly, snappers‚ aggressiveness on land disappears when they‚re in their element ponds, lakes, swamps, rivers and streams (preferably sluggish, with mucky bottoms and aquatic vegetation). “I have picked up an enraged female soon after removal from her nest and held her in the water by her tail,” Clifford Pope writes in Turtles of the United States and Canada. “The minute she was submerged, all her idea of biting left her and she only struggled violently to escape.” Like many turtle species, snappers are omnivores, subsisting on fish, frogs, crayfish, snails, insects (adults and larvae), plants and carrion. Their enemies include raccoons and skunks (who dig up nests to eat the eggs); crows, hawks, mammals and large fish (who attack the hatchlings). For adult snappers, only man˜and leeches and other parasites (external and internal)are on their enemies list.

Snappers are doubly armed. When alarmed they secrete a powerful musk, not so vile as that of Sternotherus but bad enough, Pope says. Two Sternotherus (musk turtle) species the eastern musk turtle (or stinkpot) and the striped-neck musk turtle inhabit our region. Both sport a pair of barbels (fleshy protuberances) on their chins (S. odoratus has a second pair on its throat). Like all musk turtles, their plastrons are single-hinged. (Their close relatives, the mud turtles, have double-hinged plastrons.) Small (generally 3-5 inches long) and aquatic, they prefer habitats with soft, muddy bottoms where they prowl in search of snails and insects, their principal food. Still, their limited plastrons give their legs great mobility; they’re capable of climbing to relatively high and difficult perches, from which, when disturbed, they obey an impulse to plot back into the water. “If a turtle ever falls on your head or drops into your canoe, it will probably be this one,” Conant writes of the stinkpot. While the stinkpot is widely distributed throughout the eastern US, the range of the striped-neck musk turtle is limited to Western North Carolina, eastern Tennessee, Alabama, and south-central Mississippi. In North Carolina it occurs only in portions of the French Broad River.

Also limited (in NC) to the French Broad is the eastern spiny softshell, an exceedingly odd looking turtle, with a long neck, elongated snout, tubular nostrils, broadly webbed feet and a flat, leathery shell that bends at the sides and rear. Conant calls them “animated pancakes.” Softshell turtles are found in Africa, Asia, Malaysia and North America; our spiny softshell (T. s. spiniferus) is one of six recognized subspecies. Though it looks harmless, it‚s not. Captured, it will struggle violently, hiss, snap and savagely scratch. Females are much larger (7-18 inches long) than males (5-9 inches). Spiny softshells like to bury themselves in soft bottoms of the rivers, lakes and marshy creeks they inhabit, but they‚re also powerful and agile swimmers.

Eastern painted turtles are “widely scattered in the mountains,” says the guide to Amphibians and Reptiles of the Carolinas and Virginia. Small and aquatic, their smooth shells have red margins. Males entice potential mates (who are larger than they are) in an elaborate underwater courtship display that includes shaking their elongated foreclaws at the object of their affection, then stroking her head and neck. (If she‚s interested, she strokes back.) Our painted turtles belong to one of four distinct subspecies that range across the continent. They dwell in shallow, slow-moving water in marshes, ponds, lakes and creeks. Painted turtles subsist on living and dead plant and animal matter. Like box turtles, their homing ability is well-developed; home ranges may include several bodies of water.

Our most protected turtle species is the diminutive (3-4 inches) bog, a secretive denizen of marshy meadows, sphagnum bogs and swamps, who quickly burrows out of sight when alarmed. Three years ago, wildlife officers began implanting microchips in wild bog turtles to discourage poaching (and aid in prosecuting poachers), says WRC mountain faunal diversity biologist Chris McGrath. “We’ve implanted hundreds of these chips, with the assistance of people who have bog turtles on their property, at most known bog turtle sites in the state. We think it‚s an effective deterrent; anyone caught in illegal possession of a bog turtle can receive a fine of up to $25,000 and a year in jail.

Bog turtle populations have always been low, but they’re threatened now by ditching that drains their habitat and by development. They‚re easily recognized by the bright orange blotches on the sides of their heads and necks. In August, 1996, in a downpour, I stopped to move a turtle out of the road. I thought it was a box turtle, albeit a very dark one, until I turned it over and saw that its plastron wasn‚t hinged, so I took it home to look up in my turtle book. When I realized what it was, I called McGrath. He came out, marked its shell and released it near where I‚d picked it up. (It was the first state record for a bog turtle in my home (Mitchell) county.) What was odd was it was nowhere near a bog. But Dennis Herman, Coordinator of Living Collections at he NC State Museum of Natural Sciences, told me that while most bog turtles never leave their native bogs, “a certain percentage are always on the move.” They follow ancient dispersal routes, probably along watercourses, that may have been used by turtles for thousands of years. These wanderers refresh gene pools in the colonies they visit. Rain and that was a rainy summer, like this oneseems to stimulate their wanderlust. So next time you move a turtle out of the road (move it to the side it‚s headed for, not the one it left), take a good look. Probably it will be a box turtle, but you might get lucky and hold in your hand for a minute the rarest of the rare – a vagabond bog.


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