In June of 2009, the Nantucket Conservation Foundation received two reports of Eastern box turtles within 2 weeks of each other. The first – a female – was found crossing a dirt road at Head of the Plains and the other – a male – was found in a yard in the Surfside area. What was so unusual about these reports was that box turtles were thought to have been extirpated from the island long ago. To have found two at nearly the same time had us scratching our heads a bit.
Box turtles are common in the pet trade and unfortunately very often released in to the wild when people realize that turtles really don’t make great pets. Our first thought was that perhaps these were either lost pets, or turtles that had intentionally been released. Or, could they be native, wild turtles that just hadn’t been sighted in years and it was just coincidence that they were found within weeks of each other? We certainly didn’t want to confine a wild turtle to a life in a terrarium, but we also didn’t want to set loose a pet turtle unsure whether or not they’d make it through a Nantucket winter (turtles kept in captivity also carry diseases that are easily transmitted to wild turtles – it’s never a good idea to release a turtle that’s been captive its whole life).
We happened to be conducting work on another species of native Nantucket turtle – the spotted turtle – at the time when these turtles were found. We had a few extra radio transmitters available so we decided to affix them to these two box turtles. This allowed us to hedge our bets and keep an eye on these turtles for a year to make sure they continued to stay healthy, to see where they moved, and make sure they found safe places to hibernate for the winter.
The person who originally found the male in Surfside felt that the area was so densely populated with houses and roads that it wouldn’t be a safe place to release this turtle. We made the decision to release the male and female together where the female was found at Head of the Plains – perhaps they might even like each other and in the future there would be more box turtles on Nantucket?! But our plans didn’t work out and both turtles made bee lines in opposite directions. Fortunately, both remained healthy, found safe spots to hibernate and emerged in the spring no worse for the wear! We continued to track them until mid-July of 2010 and convinced that they knew how to be wild box turtles, we removed their transmitters and stopped stalking them.
Below is a map of the Head of the Plains area southeast of Madaket and the relocation points of each turtle over 2009 and 2010, including where they hibernated.
After we removed their transmitters, we filed a small notch in to a scute on the edge of their carapace (shell) so that if they were every re-found, we would know their identity. We also took a toe nail clipping for genetic analysis to hopefully get some answers as to whether these were wild or captive turtles. Every year we wondered how they fared but never saw them again….
On October 11th, a little boy name Guy and his mom Dana, reported the first known sighting of the male box turtle near a stand of pitch pine trees on Hummock Pond Rd!
We were so thrilled to know that at least one of the box turtles is still out there, alive and well! He looks almost exactly the same as he did when we released him, except for a small scar on his carapace. As the crow flies, he is 1.8 miles from his last known location having crossed Hummock Pond and Hummock Pond Rd! And, once again, we affixed him with a radio transmitter and so resume our stalking of the male Eastern box turtle for another year in the hopes that we find out more about where he goes, how he uses habitat and, fingers crossed, perhaps he will lead us to other box turtles on Island! Very soon after he was found, he chose a protected spot in the pine woods and began burrowing down to hibernate now that it has gotten colder. We will check on him periodically throughout the winter and will update once again when he emerges in the spring!
We always encourage people to report wildlife sightings to us! Please call the Nantucket Conservation Foundation office at (508) 228-2884.
The Nantucket Conservation Foundation is a private, non-profit land trust that depends on contributions from our members to support our science projects, conservation property acquisitions and land management efforts. If you are not already a member, please join us now! www.nantucketconservation.org