As the temperatures begin to rise, wildlife will start to stir from their winter dormancy. One animal we will be seeing around town again is the ornate box turtle. If you’ve spent your life in Kansas, or at least one summer here, you’ve probably encountered these turtles with bright yellow and black patterns across their backs.
These turtles are found in open prairie or grazed pasturelands, which means that Finney County contains prime habitat for this land-loving, or terrestrial, turtle. Typically, an individual’s home range is about 5 acres; an ornate box turtle might spend its whole life in the same 5 acres. This is not always possible, though.
A major threat to a turtle’s home range is habitat loss. Humans are excellent at altering our surroundings to better suit our needs, but this creates challenges for wildlife. As we change the landscape, this reduces the natural habitat available for wildlife. With reduced resources available, animals might be forced to move to areas with better resources. Another outcome is that populations will shrink because there is just not enough food, water, shelter, or space to support the current population.
Another challenge turtles encounter is habitat fragmentation; even if the natural habitat is not completely removed, the available resources might be obstructed. For example, a large building can be an obstacle to reaching the far end of a habitat range for a small animal. Traveling around this structure, instead of directly across natural habitat, could expose the turtles to new threats or force them to spend more time foraging to compensate for the calories burned in the detour.
Fragmentation is also caused by roadways; streets make it easier for people to access resources, but they can be a major challenge for slow-moving turtles. When resources (food, water, shelter, space, or potential mates) are separated by roads, turtles have no choice but to cross streets full of fast-moving cars. Next time you are on a drive, keep an eye out for ornate box turtles, and if possible, avoid hitting them. If you want to do more, you can pull over and help the turtle cross the road. When assisting a turtle, always hold their shell with two hands, never by the tail, and move them in the direction they were originally heading.
By taking these actions, you will help reduce the impact habitat fragmentation has on our local ornate box turtles. No matter how you choose to help, please consider safety for yourself and others. Roadways might be too busy for you to cross safely, or you might cause an accident by suddenly stopping.
Assisting box turtles crossing roadways isn’t the only way you can help ornate box turtles this year. You can also help the species by reporting sightings or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. This email address was created by the Topeka Zoo to allow community members to contribute sightings to the zoo’s ongoing ornate box turtle population study. In your email, please include the following information: county where observed, time of day, and as specific a location as possible.
If you want to know more about ornate box turtles and Lee Richardson Zoo’s involvement in the Kansas ornate box turtle population study, led by the Topeka Zoo, check back for upcoming From the Zoo to You articles.
Catie Policastro is the conservation education specialist at Lee Richardson Zoo.