Why did the turtle cross the road? Turns out, it was following the homing instinct that forever draws it back to where it was born. Across the state, citizen scientists collect data that may help protect this beloved reptile — and sometimes lend a hand to turtles in trouble.
Meredith Brooks has a special attachment to Finch, a 15-year-old eastern box turtle. She first met him in 2011, when a neighbor brought him to her after the young turtle was run over by a car. His shell was split, and Brooks thought to herself, This is probably going to be a miracle turtle that’s going to make it. She took him to a veterinarian that had a special interest in the treatment of reptiles who administered antibiotics and used epoxy to glue his shell back together.
Citizen scientist Steve O’Neil marks eastern box turtles with tracking transmitters. photograph by Tim Robison
While Finch recovered, Brooks kept him in her turtle habitat at her home in Transylvania County, where he gained weight quickly and continued to mature. After three or four years, he started mating with other turtles in the habitat, and Brooks knew that it was time to get him back into the wild. She glued a radio transmitter to the back of his shell and released him close to where he was hit, but safely away from the road.
Brooks, along with her mentor, Steve O’Neil, is a citizen scientist working with the Box Turtle Connection, a statewide project chaired by Dr. Ann Berry Somers, a senior lecturer emerita at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Brooks and O’Neil were introduced through a mutual acquaintance who knew that they were both interested in turtles, and together, they became involved with the Box Turtle Connection, through which they capture, mark, and release turtles in Transylvania and Henderson counties. The data that they collect contributes to an understanding of box turtle populations, with the goal of species conservation. In addition to the project, the pair educates others about box turtles — including what to do if you find one in the wild, and how to protect this declining species.
Brooks and O’Neil have both loved turtles since they were kids. When Brooks was 5, she built a turtle motel complete with a beach and little turtle condos made of bricks. She now understands that turtles are wild animals that should not be kept as pets, but, she says, “I did what kids do. I didn’t know any better.”
O’Neil felt a connection to turtles because, as a self-proclaimed introverted kid, he often withdrew into his own shell. He loves all reptiles, but box turtles are his favorite. “They have this ancient quality about them,” he says. “Like a wise old man sitting in the forest, contemplating existence.”
Box turtles start their lives as hatchlings about the size of a quarter and eventually grow to an average length of five or six inches. They can live to be well over 100 years old. photograph by Tim Robison
The eastern box turtle is the only terrestrial turtle native to North Carolina. They’re commonly found across the state, except for the Outer Banks, and most often in forested areas, where their splotchy shells — typically a mixture of brown, yellow, orange, and red — help them blend in with leaf litter.
Box turtles have a strong homing instinct, which is why you should never pick one up in the wild and take it home, or move a turtle any farther than across the road. When a box turtle is removed from its home, it becomes stressed, and it can more easily catch diseases, lose weight, and die. “It’s not necessarily that they are trying to get home,” Steve says, “but they are in a stressed-out state because nothing is familiar to them.” So, O’Neil says, if you find a turtle trying to cross the road, simply help it across in the direction it’s headed. “They know where they are. They know where they’re going. They have an agenda.”
Cars are just one threat posed by humans that box turtles face. They like to hide in tall grass, so lawnmowers can be deadly — O’Neil recommends keeping grass short, as well as mowing during the hottest part of the day, when turtles are more likely to be buried in leaves and dirt to stay cool. People taking them home as pets is another big problem. The practice not only stresses the turtle, but it also removes it from the breeding population. And it’s illegal.
“Turtles adapted to every environmental condition that nature could throw at them for millions of years — they were here before dinosaurs,” O’Neil says. “And then we come along. They have a lot of trouble adapting to us.”
People who find turtles injured by cars, mowers, or anything else often bring them to Brooks or O’Neil to rehabilitate them. Once the turtles are healed, if they’re able to survive in the wild, they’re released near where they were found. Between the two of them, Brooks and O’Neil have rehabbed and released hundreds of box turtles. If a turtle can’t be released — either because it was too badly injured to survive in the wild or because no one knows where it came from — one of the two will keep it: Brooks currently has two box turtles that live permanently in her habitat; O’Neil has six.
Every few days between spring and fall, when box turtles are most active, Brooks tracks Finch to find out where he is and what he’s up to. Today, O’Neil is with her, and he punches a number that corresponds to the turtle’s transmitter into a radio. The radio beeps as he points it in four directions, and he and Brooks begin walking in the direction where it beeps the loudest. As they get closer, the beeps get even louder. With his yellow-and-brown shell, Finch blends in with the forest floor, and O’Neil and Brooks have to look hard to find him.
When Brooks spots Finch, she picks him up. His shell is a little misshapen from being split, but otherwise, he’s a healthy box turtle. As Brooks holds him, he stretches his neck out as far as it will go, his feet clawing at the air — this is a turtle that wants to be on the move. “He’s so virile,” Brooks says. “He needs to be in the wild, doing his thing.”