Shell Sleuths and a Box Turtle

By Joe Sebastiani, Seasonal Program Team Leader

The Delaware Nature Society has had a long history of tracking Eastern Box Turtles at the Ashland Nature Center and Burrows Run Preserve.  Jim White, Associate Director of Land and Biodiversity, has been marking Box Turtles here since the 1980’s by making small marks on the edges of their shells.  Over the years, some of these turtles are relocated by trail hikers.  In 2004, the Delaware Nature Society tried a new method…tracking them by radio telemetry.  This process requires that we attach a transmitter to the turtle’s shell.  We relocate them whenever we want by using a special antenna and radio receiver.

This week, a Box Turtle was found at Ashland Nature Center that bore Jim’s markings.  Jim quickly looked up the turtle in his record-book.  It was found on May 21, 1995, and since then in June of 1995, not again until May 5, 2006, and finally this week.  That makes him well over 15 years old!  Nate Nazdrowicz, a Herpetology doctoral student at University of Delaware who studied Box Turtles for his master’s degree, said that some Box Turtles have been found to live 100 years.  Maybe this turtle isn’t so old in turtle years.

Nate attached a transmitter to the turtle last night, and this morning it was ready for release.  Since turtles have shells, and there is a Shell Sleuths camp at Ashland this week, we recruited the campers to help.  First we had to weigh the turtle, measure its shell, and record the exact location of the release.

I take turtle weighing very seriously. It is also day to wear ugly shirts.
The Box Turtle is measured prior to its release back into the wild.

Over the next few years, we will be able to track this turtle and see if he has grown in size or if his weight fluctuates.  Students of all ages will be able to enjoy finding a wild animal and learning about its known history.  We will even determine where it hibernates for the winter.  According to Nate, Box Turtles like this one usually live within a 2 or 3 acre tract of land their entire lives.  This turtle has been in the same general area for 15 years, so chances are that it won’t leave.

The Shell Sleuths camp gets ready to release the Box Turtle back to his home.
Here is a close-up of the transmitter. Thousands of turtles across the country have worn this type of transmitter and it does not interfere with their daily lives.

Turtles we have tracked in the past have made us wonder what is going on.  In 2004, one of our summer counselors found a Box Turtle by the parking lot at Ashland Nature Center.  We decided to put the transmitter on it.  For a month, it stayed at Ashland.  We hadn’t checked it in a week, and when we did, we found that it had left the property and walked a mile to the southeast.  We kept the transmitter on it and tracked it for another two weeks.  It kept going in the same direction and ended up two miles away from Ashland near Hoopes Reservoir.  We returned the turtle to Ashland and let it go again.  Over the next week, we found that it left the property and was going in the same direction!  Since Box Turtles usually don’t travel this far, we surmised that someone found the turtle elsewhere, and let it go at Ashland.  The turtle might have been trying to get back home.

High school and college students have tracked our turtles over the years for various science projects.  Let us know if you are interested in doing this for an academic purpose.  Also, look for turtle programs that we offer from time to time if you would like to go turtle tracking!

Happy trails!

6 thoughts on “Shell Sleuths and a Box Turtle”

  1. Very interesting! I’m curious about the turtle you just released. Was it already an adult when it was first marked in 1995?

  2. Joe Sebastiani

    I just checked on the Box Turtle this morning (July 23, 2010) which is a week after release. He is fine and moved about 75 yards downhill from the release site. I found him at the edge of a thicket in some seriously thick vegetation.

  3. We found a box turtle yesterday near Gordons Pond State Park. It was trying to cross the road. We helped it to cross safely to the other side. Is there a tracking program near the beach?

  4. As far as I know, there is no box turtle tracking program near the beach. No box turtles are being tracked at Ashland any more either. However, if you find a box turtle, try to get a photograph and put it on iNaturalist or Herpmapper for the Delaware Herpetological Atlas project.

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