Learning about the Secret Lives of Baby Box Turtles

Wellfleet Bay has been tracking mature box turtles for years, but young turtles, secretive by nature, have been far less studied.

In late 2018 we had a unique opportunity to investigate a clutch of five eastern box turtles that had hatched in late August at a home next to the sanctuary. When the homeowners realized they were unable to raise box turtles and that it was illegal to keep them in Massachusetts, they contacted the sanctuary for help and we contacted MassWildlife. Box turtles are listed as a species of concern in Massachusetts.

Due in part to the fact it was too late in the season to release the hatchlings into the wild, the state allowed us to “head start” the turtles with the seasoned turtle staff at Bristol Agricultural High Schools Natural Resources Management Department in Dighton.

A Bristol Agricultural High School student measures a head start hatchling. (Photo courtesy of Brian Bastarache.)

The folks at Bristol Aggie are well versed in caring for and raising young turtles for eventual release. We asked them to rear our box turtles until they were large enough for us to attach small radio transmitters so that we could observe them long term. We developed a study plan to monitor movements, growth rates, home range establishment and brumation patterns. This will be the first time that the sanctuary has had the opportunity to begin a long-term study of juvenile box turtles.

While at the high school, the turtles were watched over by the students and staff, fed a healthy diet, and kept at optimal temperature in the modified greenhouse that the school uses to raise turtles (a spectacular new facility is under construction now with completion expected later this year). As part of their curriculum, the students weigh and measure the turtles weekly and record that information on the individual turtle’s chart. The enthusiasm and dedication of the students involved in this program is really exhilarating.

“Number 3” weighed in at 59.5 grams in December of 2018. His/her weight more than tripled during the 18-month head start period. (Photo courtesy of Brian Bastarache.)

During the eighteen months that the turtles were at Bristol Aggie they grew quickly. When we picked them up in May and brought them back to the sanctuary they averaged 10 centimeters in length and 200 grams, roughly equivalent to a 5-6 year old wild turtle! On May 21st we released them at the sanctuary to begin our project.

Big baby! This turtle has the body of a 5 year old but was hatched just 18 month ago. (Photo courtesy of Kim Novino.)

Each turtle was set free in a different strategic location on the property known to be used by other box turtles. Prior to this all the turtles were measured and weighed. All were photographed and given ID numbers that were notched into their marginal scutes (the edge of their shells) to positively identify them. Finally, I fitted each turtle with a 6 gram Holohil radio transmitter to allow me to track it for 6 months. After six months, I will need to change the transmitter and install a fresh one. I’ll continue this until they are large enough to comfortably wear a 9 gram transmitter that lasts a full year.

Turtles are weighed, measured, and marked before their release so they can be followed for what we hope are many decades to come! (Photo courtesy of Tim O’Brien.)

So how are they doing? It’s only been a few weeks, but each turtle is settling into its new habitat. One of the questions we are looking to answer is whether the turtles will act like 20 month old turtles who hide most of the time, or will they act more like 6 year old turtles who tend to explore a bit more?

Upon release each turtle sought cover immediately which is what we expected. During their first week, two turtles traveled 50-100 feet. On my last check, each turtle was either buried under leaf little or in a small grass form. I observed one turtle eating a slug which I consider to be a good sign that they are settling in!

This recently released youngster appears to have found a place in the sun.(Photo courtesy of Tim O’Brien.)

This post was contributed by Wellfleet Bay box turtle researcher Tim O’Brien.

2 thoughts on “Learning about the Secret Lives of Baby Box Turtles

  1. Diane Silverstein

    Love hearing about Tim’s box turtle work! Look forward to hearing about the journey of these turtle babies!

    Reply

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