What is the value of a natural area close to areas that are built-up with roads, businesses, and lots of people? It means some of our important species are not totally driven out of an area where they once had full domain. One example of this is the eastern box turtles found at the Nina Mason Pulliam EcoLab (NMP EcoLab) on the campus of Marian University in the middle of Indianapolis.
Turtles are a common sight in wet areas such as rivers, ponds, or lakes. But did you know not all turtles can swim well? Eastern box turtles are found throughout Indiana and throughout the eastern US in forested areas. They are not good swimmers and look more like a tortoise than a turtle with their dome-shaped shell.
Stephanie Schuck, the restoration ecologist at the NMP EcoLab, started studying eastern box turtles on the 55 acres of natural area on Marian University property. Around the NMP EcoLab are pink flags. These flags are where eastern box turtles have been found. They mark the area to show when and where the turtles are around and to find out how many turtles are residing in the area.
Research started in Fall 2015 with the Vertebrate Biology students at Marian. Since the start of the study to summer 2016, nine individual turtles have been identified and had data collected from them. Before the study began, many more had been seen and are assumed to be on the property.
These reptiles are able to encase themselves completely in their shell thanks to a hinge allowing them to "box" themselves inside of their shell. They do this when food sources are low and they need to decrease activity and preserve what energy they have. This is also a method of protection for when a turtle feels threatened.
As omnivores, Eastern box turtles eat both insects and plants. However, diets vary between turtles depending on where they live and what is available to eat. They are one of our natural ways to control insect populations. Males and females can be distinguished by their eye color. Males tend to have red eyes while females will have brown eyes. They are not social animals and usually are found alone unless it is mating season.
Because Eastern box turtles are slow to mature, taking between 8 and 10 years to reach full maturity, they have few offspring and are also prone to accidents with cars or farm equipment. We have a lower number of them in the wild than we would like, making them a species of special concern and protected in Indiana.
Along with studying turtles to find out more about their population and habits at the NMP EcoLab, Stephanie Schuck also wants to educate people about these creatures. “Turtles are an animal everyone loves,” Schuck says. She hopes people will take what they learn about protecting eastern box turtles and apply it in other ways. “When you care about one thing, you will see the connections and start to do more,” she states.
If you come across an eastern box turtle in the wild, please let it be. Because of their protected status, they are not allowed to be taken from the wild or moved to another location. If a turtle is in the road, you may gently move it in the same direction it was going. If a turtle appears sick or injured, please contact the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.