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Jun 4, 2019 11:04 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

Box Turtles Are On The Move

Xylia Serafy, an educator at the South Fork Natural History Museum, holding a snapping turtle which has been rehabilitated and will return to the wild. ELIZABETH VESPE
Jun 4, 2019 12:04 PM

A female box turtle lays anywhere from three to six eggs each year once it reaches maturity, but usually only one egg survives to become a hatchling.

After turtles bury the eggs, a number of predators—raccoons, feral cats, stray dogs and snakes—might dig them up and eat them.

“That’s why it’s such a big deal when you see a turtle crossing the street or getting hit by a car,” Xylia Serafy, an educator at the South Fork Natural History Museum, who also has a license to rehabilitate and care for turtles, said on a recent Friday afternoon. She was holding one of the yellowish-brown box turtles in the enclosed turtle sanctuary behind the Bridgehampton museum as she explained why so many are out at this time of year.

“Thousands and thousands of eggs have been laid to have this one turtle here—and in a matter of seconds, it’s been crushed,” she added.

According to the State Department of Environmental Conservation, all land turtles in New York are in decline, and they cannot be kept as pets.

Common box turtles are on the move in May and June, seeking sandy areas or loose soil in which to lay their eggs. In New York, thousands of turtles are killed each year when they are struck by vehicles as they migrate to their nesting areas.

“They’re dying off a lot out here,” mainly due to human interaction, including getting run over by cars, and people building on their habitats, said Ms. Serafy, whose turtles come to live at the SoFo sanctuary after they’ve been injured or given up as pets.

The chances of wild turtles running into each other to mate are very slim, which is why a female box turtle can hold a male’s sperm for four years. “If she doesn’t run into a male, she still has the ability to lay eggs,” Ms. Serafy said.

Two of SoFo’s box turtles lay eggs each year, which the turtles are now incubating. Ms. Serafy said they hope to get at least one hatchling from the batch. Once the eggs are laid, it takes about two and a half months for them to hatch.

Ms. Serafy said that people often assume that when a turtle has been hit by a lawn mower, or has a cut in its shell, it’s dead. “They can still be alive and dying slowly,” she said.

According to Ms. Serafy, when a turtle breaks its shell, it’s almost like a human breaking a bone: Rehabilitators have a way of pulling the pieces of the shell back together and setting them, as a doctor would do with a broken arm.

“Ideally, the shell would regenerate,” Ms. Serafy said.

A Jamesport-based nonprofit organization, Turtle Rescue of the Hamptons, can be called at any time, at 631-779-3737, to evaluate an injured turtle anywhere on the East End.

Box turtles, the most common on the East End, are characterized by a high domed shell that is hinged at the bottom. The 5- to 7-inch shell allows the animal to retract its head and legs and close its shell tightly—like a box—to protect itself from predators.

Box turtles can easily be lifted by their sides: Since they’re not generally social animals, they’ll pull their bodies in and close up.

Typically, box turtles are seen crossing busy streets during late spring and early summer. If a turtle is crossing the street, it should be moved in the direction it is heading.

“They’ll just try to cross the street again” if moved back from where they started, Ms. Serafy said.

Anyone handling a distressed turtle, or moving a turtle out of the road, should immediately use hand sanitizer or wash their hands, because reptiles, including turtles, can carry salmonella.

SoFo is currently taking care of 13 turtles, four of which are box turtles. Most will not be returned to the wild due to injuries, or because they were previously pets and don’t have the instincts to live in the wild.

Ms. Serafy said once the temperature hits 50 or 60 degrees, the turtles wake up from six months of hibernation, which starts in October. Typically, turtles burrow 6 inches underground to hibernate, as their heart rate slows down to a beat or two per minute.

“They physically can’t move,” Ms. Serafy explained. “It’s almost as if they’re frozen.”

Mating and feeding—in no specific order—are the turtles’ main priorities after reemerging. When they’re on the move, the animals are searching for suitable nesting areas with plenty of sun and loose soil that they can dig up.

A little-known fact about turtles is that the sex of the turtle depends on the temperature they’re incubated in. If it’s cooler, it’ll be a male; if it’s warmer, it’ll be a female. Typically, the female eggs will be at the bottom of the nest where it is warmer, and the males will be at the top.

Ms. Serafy explained that turtles eat “whatever they come across,” including greens, snails, spiders, earthworms, fallen fruit, berries—they love berries, she said—and sometimes even dead mice.

Box turtles are known as the longest-living vertebrate in North America: On average, the box turtle will live 50 years, but they can live as long as a hundred years—with luck, and without any humans killing them before then.

The Turtle Rescue of the Hamptons website is turtlerescueofthehamptons.org. For more information about the South Fork Natural History Museum, contact 631-537-9735 or go to sofo.org.

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