FROM ZOO TO YOU
The Kansas state reptile is one that every person from Kansas is probably familiar with: the Ornate box turtle, recognizable by the high domed carapace (top shell) with a very distinctive pattern. The word ornate means an intricate shape or decorated with complex designs. If you have ever seen an Ornate box turtle, then this makes sense. Each turtle has a different coloration and pattern to its carapace, much like humans have their own unique characteristics. Another unique characteristic of the box turtle is its hinge-like plastron (bottom shell) that allows them to close their head and feet into it and protect themselves from predators.
Why is springtime special for box turtles? Just like many other species of animals, it is the time of year they emerge from their winter slumber, and you can begin seeing them around the area again, usually basking in the sun or making their way across the road. Ornate box turtles are active from April to October when the temperatures are warm and their food sources are plentiful. Box turtles are considered omnivores, consuming mostly insects like beetles, grasshoppers, cicadas, earthworms, and the occasional fruits and vegetables they may be able to find in the wild, possibly even some of those plants we often call weeds, dandelions.
Another reason the ornate box turtle is commonly seen in the springtime is that it is their breeding season. Box turtles maintain a home range of only a few acres; sometimes, home ranges overlap, but they may have to travel to find a mate. Many times, while traveling, turtles encounter man-made roadways. The vehicles that use the roads pose a threat to wild turtles. There are a few things you can do to help that turtle safely cross the road. Watch for turtles crossing the road during the spring and
do your best to safely avoid hitting them. If possible, safely pull over and move the turtle out of harm’s way. Turtles generally know where they are going, so it is important that we look where the turtle is heading and take them to the other side of the road. If we take the turtle to an area they were not heading to, they are likely to try to cross the road again because they are looking for food or a mate. It is also important that when picking up a turtle, you gently pick them up like a hamburger, one hand on either side of the shell away from their face. Even though they are small, their bite can still hurt.
Helping turtles cross the road is a great way to ensure their species’ survival. Ornate box turtle populations continue to decline and are ranked as Near Threatened by the IUCN Red List (International Union for Conservation of Nature). There are many species all around the world that face threats daily; this is one that we can help in our own backyard.
Alyssa Mechler is an education specialist at Lee Richardson Zoo.