Yup, after another long winter’s sleep, the box turtle member of the flock has finally decided to put in an appearance!
Two flock members were fairly un-moved….but the large featherless flock member was over the moon to see her boy again!
This is the second year Bruce has been with us, and his second hibernation with us as well.
I was really, really nervous when I started seeing all these Instagram posts about other people’s box turtles waking up and coming out of hibernation. Yesterday morning I headed outside to check on the shells as usual and noticed Bruce’s little in-habitat pool had some dirt in it.
Aha. Where there is pool dirt there is usually a box turtle. And there was!!
This starry-eyed mama loves her boy soooooo much!! <3
No matter how colorful they may appear to be (for example, Bruce has bright orange cheek patches set against a white face with black and brown accents), put them practically anywhere and watch them disappear.
I can’t tell you how many times I have looked….and looked and looked and looked….for Bruce, to the point of panicking and thinking my precious rescued charge has escaped or been taken somehow, only to then discover him right under my nose.
He literally is that good at disappearing in plain sight.
So often after I have searched (what I think is) every corner of his outdoor enclosure, I will then spy him resting placidly beneath a leaf, sitting right in the center of his bathing pool, hiding out half-covered in leaf litter or perched atop a pile of shell-colored hay.
Too lightweight and streamlined to be a tortoise, yet too land-bound to be a true water turtle, box turtles have had to carve out their own niche in the world of shelled beings.
As a result, they have developed into serious shelled athletes. Climbing? No problem. Swimming? Sure thing. Digging? Already on it.
Digging can be particularly important for safety when you are a small, steak-sized morsel stuck right up in the middle of the wild natural food chain.
Digging is also important for warmth, especially at night in cooler climates and when you are ready to make eggs.
And digging becomes particularly crucial when temperatures drop and it is time to hibernate.
Box turtles have powerful legs with strong claws and as such make excellent diggers. They are also born with a powerful instinctual need to dig and burrow for the reasons mentioned here. If this need isn’t met in captivity, a box turtle can become apathetic and fail to thrive.
A box turtle may dig in any relatively soft material that looks burrow-worthy, but in captivity, hay, dirt, moss and leaf litter make particularly comfy and warm materials for digging and burrowing.
Living with two different shelled species is so interesting!
They are so similar in so many ways, and yet so different in other ways.
One thing both Bruce and Malti share in common is an instinct to climb. While both have been known to climb just because it seems possible, the number one motivation I have observed is to escape.
For example, let’s say you are Bruce and you are in your inside enclosure because outside there is a particularly nasty hurricane called “Harvey” blowing through.
But you don’t like being indoors or being enclosed. You especially don’t like being indoors AND enclosed. Thankfully, your clueless large shell-less caretaker has lined your inside enclosure with warm, slightly damp towels for total box turtle comfort.
So all you have to do to escape is climb up the towels until you reach the top.
Or perhaps you are in your outdoor enclosure and the weather is nice and damp and rainy – just the way you like it best. But your mommy doesn’t seem to realize this is the perfect weather for hunting snacks.
Here, you need to get her attention by climbing up the mesh walls of your habitat and clinging there at the top until she rushes to “rescue” you, at which point she will open the top and you can escape.
I was born in Houston, Texas. Although I have traveled quite a bit and have lived other places intermittently, for the majority of my years I have lived here.
This is relevant because, in all the years I have lived here – until now – it has always been hot and humid.
Generally speaking, we would get about two weeks of prime weather in spring and another two weeks in fall. Winter would last for a few weeks, often with plentiful rain and the kind of mildly cold, damp conditions that can make you want to wear just half a coat.
But this all changed the moment “global warming” arose. Now, Houston actually produces a legitimate winter, complete with freezing temperatures and, at least in the last few years, actual snow.
When it happened last year, I lost every carefully cultivated green thing I owned….both in and out of the shells’ outdoor habitats. And you would think that would have taught me to cover them all up.
Unfortunately, it didn’t, and I woke up after this year’s first hard freeze/snow to discover my carefully garaged potted plants were just fine and the plants in Bruce’s and Malti’s outdoor habitats had become shriveled sludge on stalks.
And vegetation isn’t cheap! Since Malti and then Bruce came to live here at Casa Feathers n Beak n Shells, I have become a “regular” at our local Walmart, prowling for “clearance” priced hibiscus and last season’s green vegetable garden leftovers.
I wasn’t watching either habitat this year, since, yet again, Malti is living indoors until it warms up again and Bruce is in deep hibernation.
All that to say – boy are they going to be in for a surprise when they get a good look at their formerly lush, green outdoor enclosures, which look exactly the same except for the “lush, green” part.
And I will have a lot of vegetation shopping to do come spring.
In a previous post, we talked about hibernation, or brumation if it is a reptile like Bruce who is hibernating.
Since then, Bruce and his mommy have fielded several questions about the timing of his annual hibernation. Most of the questions have focused on how we know (or how I know that Bruce knows) it is “time” for him to brumate.
First, I have to say that Bruce is definitely the one who knows it is time. And I am the one who watches him day in and day out to try to figure out when he is ready.
One good way I’ve found to narrow down the possible date range is to watch the weather forecast. Even though weather people often seem to make the same kinds of wild guesses I make when attempting to predict future weather, in this case I am only looking at a single factor: evening temperatures.
When the evening temperatures are predicted to consistently fall below 60 degrees Fahrenheit for a few nights in a row, I go ahead and break out the hay and place it in one corner of his outdoor habitat.
(We use hay to hibernate Bruce because of how his outdoor habitat is set up – this was our fabulous vet’s idea of how to provide him with cheap, warming insulation).
I then wait to see what Bruce does next. If he crawls into the layers of hay and doesn’t come out for a day or few, I add more hay and wait for the temperatures to drop some more, especially during the daytime.
Once the daytime temps are hitting 65 degrees Fahrenheit and lower during the day and even lower at night, I wrap the “hibernation end” of Bruce’s habitat in insulating thick plastic to give him further protection from the cold air, wind, rain, ice, and (in rare seasons) frost or even light snowfall.
This is not an exact science, by the way. Because we live in the tropical South, he may pop in and out of his hay several times before the weather stabilizes on the “cold” setting. For this reason, I also don’t stop feeding him three weeks prior to his hibernation start date the way hibernation experts recommend, because he doesn’t really have a hibernation start date.
If we lived in the colder north where “fall” and “winter” are actual tangible seasons that come one after the other in the orderly fashion they are supposed to, I would pick out a hibernation date and stop the meals and soak him to empty his bowels and all that.
But here in Houston, TX, we do the best we can, and I trust him to do what he’s been doing all on his own for several years before he came to live with us.
When you keep company with turtles and tortoises, you have plenty of opportunities to make new neural connections.
This, of course, is because they are full of brain-enriching surprises.
For instance, never in a million years would I have guessed how very different one shelled being can be from another – at least not until Bruce was rescued to me and came to live permanently with our little flock.
I thought I was at least somewhat prepared to care for a second shelled being, given that I had by then amassed a couple of years’ worth of experience parenting Malti, a hatchling South American redfoot tortoise.
Hah. Malti might as well have been a hummingbird or a mountain goat for all she prepared me to parent Bruce.
Their personalities – so different. Their daily habits – so different. Hobbies – so very different. Weight, width, length, looks, mobility – different, different and oh-so-different.
In fact, pretty much the only thing they seemed to have in common was the shared shells adorning their top halves!
This difference also extended to their respective dining preferences.
Malti isn’t exactly what we’d call a gal who wants to work for her supper. She prefers it already dead, chopped up into bite-sized pieces, and (if at all possible) handfed so she can enjoy her lunch with zero personal exertion.
And then there is Bruce. The first time I saw Bruce’s wild red eyes light up and begin to whirl intensely when I presented a live and wriggling mealworm….there really are no words for the transformation.
All of a sudden, his “inner predator” came out. Instead of the sweet, petite, shy little boxie I’d come to know, here was a ferocious slavering hyena moving in for the kill.
After a few rounds of Bruce’s now-trademarked “chase and chomp” hunting style (where I drop the mealworm down on the soil in front of him and then cheer and heckle as they duke it out), I started to wonder why this wasn’t a sport. it was just that exciting.
He has the same reaction to any still-living menu items. The other day I placed a large, live escargot into his habitat. Instantly, his body tensed. His eyes turned deep red and began to whirl. He arched his neck and dropped his head down to take a deep sniff.
I had to look away at that point. But when I next looked back, the escargot was nowhere to be found.
By the time Bruce was rescued to me as an adult, Malti had been living with me for about two years.
During that time, I had made a LOT of mistakes in pretty much every area where a newbie tortoise owner can make a mistake.
But I was also working overtime to correct those mistakes and learn everything I could about caring for shelled beings. (I will be doing this for the rest of my life, and happily so).
So when Bruce did arrive, I had already heard the term “shell rot.” I knew that it could be caused by too-moist living conditions, shell injuries, and bacteria or fungi that invade the shell.
Of course, after racking up an impressive list of errors while raising Malti from a hatchling, I was determined that Bruce was never EVER going to get shell rot.
But then one day I went out to retrieve Bruce for his yard play time and noticed a small speck of blood on the shell scute nearest his neck. I immediately snapped zillions of pics and sent them to our vet for analysis.
Her diagnosis was that Bruce had been being Bruce, an active, curious, smart adult box turtle who liked to climb up the inside of the wire mesh walls of his outdoor habitat, sometimes tumbling down onto his back if he lost his grip prematurely (there was lots of soft dirt, leaf litter, and hay underneath him, but apparently it still wasn’t enough to prevent a shell injury).
Anyway, our vet said he had likely injured his shell during one of his climbing sessions. She told me to watch the injured area closely and see if it got better.
It did get better. It went from red to black to brown, and then he didn’t exhibit any sensitivity when I touched it, so we deemed it healed.
Then, not so long ago, I noticed that one of the scutes along the rear side area of his shell looked like it had come loose. Instead of sitting flat like the others, it kind of stuck up and seemed shorter than all the rest.
Once again, I snapped pics and sent them to our vet straightaway. The diagnosis….shell rot. Of course.
So here I learned that even when I am doing everything right as a box turtle mama, sometimes boys will be boys, regardless of species.
Luckily, this scute also cleared up on its own without any need for special medical intervention, although I know that is not always the case.
Different species of turtles and tortoises like to eat different types of victuals.
For instance, if you are a box turtle, you like protein. You especially like it when it is live and wriggling and you can hunt it.
If you are a box turtle named Bruce and you see a plump, live, wriggling prey, your red eyes will light up and get very intense and actually look like they are whirling.
For a petite tasty prey, I would almost assume looking into those eyes is like looking into the sun. In other words, you’re doomed if you do it.
From what I’ve read and heard, a hatchling box turtle will typically eat only protein. But older juvenile and adult box turtles are omnivores like people and will eat whatever smells like food.
Since Bruce came to me as a rescue adult box turtle, I have had to experiment to find out what he likes to eat. Usually I give him whatever I am giving Malti, his younger tortoise sister, but balanced more on the side of protein for him.
Dark leafy greens, cactus, blueberries, mushrooms, corn, zucchini, squash, strawberries, grapes, figs, papaya, mango, green beans….these are some of the veggies and fruits I serve regularly (which he may or may not eat depending on the day).
For protein, I give him live mealworms from the pet store at least twice per week, and fresh cooked salmon or tinned tuna to supplement that. His outdoor habitat also regularly attracts earthworms, snails, lizards, and other bugs, and I have to assume he hunts them as well (I’ve definitely seen him hunt snails, although they don’t make for much of a challenge!).
There are LOTS of good ideas online for sample box turtle diets, and I still consult these for new menu options.
I also make sure to offer the food in the morning or evening when it is less hot outside (in the cold season, Bruce hibernates so he doesn’t need to eat). The optimal feeding time is when it is warm (but not hot) so he can digest his food well.
Bruce doesn’t like to be watched while he eats. Often I will put down his food (served on a large rock to keep his beak trimmed) and sneak away, then take a peek later after he thinks I’m gone. Usually he wastes no time checking out the menu once he thinks he’s alone!
Not all turtles and tortoises hibernate. Among the species that do, the technical term for what happens when a reptile (rather than a mammal) does this is called “brumation.”
If you are a herpetologist (reptile expert), you will know to use the term “brumation” instead of “hibernation” when referring to a reptile’s traditional period of winter dormancy.
If you are the rest of us, you might just say “they hibernate.” This is okay too.
Either way, the brumating reptile will slow down his metabolism (breathing, heart rate, et al) to the point where he can’t even move to defend himself from predators. This is why it is so critical to make sure pet brumating reptiles are in a safe, secure location!!
Bruce, who is a 3 toed box turtle, has a native wild territory throughout the south central/eastern parts of the United States (the parts that extend from Texas through Missouri, where the 3 toed box turtle is the official state reptile – go Bruce!, Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Kansas, Mississippi and Florida).
So in this area of the country, temperatures can really vary. Some states in Bruce’s range will get more of a “true” winter season, while others may stay relatively warm throughout the year.
But most box turtles will demonstrate the desire to brumate regardless of whether they live in Texas or South Carolina, and this is partly due to DNA and circadian rhythms (the shorter days/longer nights of the cold season) and partly due to simple smart survival skills.
Victuals become more scarce in the winter, and so do chances to make baby turtles. So many herpetologists think box turtles are programmed to enter a state of protective brumation to conserve scarce resources until warmer temperatures return.
Also, many male box turtles that wake up from brumation in the spring are particularly eager to find a lady box turtle to make some eggs with. In fact, this was the season when Bruce was first rescued to me – the theory was that he had just woken up from hibernation and was scurrying around here and there looking for a lady box turtle to mate with!
But he kept finding curious dogs and cats and fast cars and houses and lots of concrete….which is how he ended up living with me instead of becoming a box turtle dad.
Exactly when and how long box turtles will brumate depends a lot on the local climate and weather patterns. In colder areas, a box turtle might start preparing for brumation as early as mid-September, whereas in warmer areas (like Houston, TX) late October to early November is a more likely target start date.
Basically, any time day and evening temperatures begin to consistently dip below 55 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit is the time when a box turtle will begin to prepare to brumate. Wild box turtles will often prepare by ceasing to eat and emptying their bowels and bladder, then digging themselves into a nice secure spot in the earth.
In captivity, box turtles depend on their owners to help them prepare, first by lessening and then withholding food for a few weeks prior (your box turtle will likely show progressively less interest in food anyway, even if you keep offering it).
Next, what captive brumating box turtles need most is a a suitable hibernaculum (secure hibernation spot) and plenty of soft, warm bedding (like hay and leaf litter) to burrow into.
You should also schedule a pre-brumation veterinary check-up to make sure your box turtle is healthy enough to survive the brumation period. Even a minor respiratory infection, shell lesion or skin injury can be fatal during brumation, so the critical importance of the pre-brumation vet checkup cannot be overstated!
Then, once your box turtle is safely settled in for the long haul, you will need to keep watch. Here, “keeping watch” typically means making sure clean water is always available just in case your box turtle wakes up and wants to drink, checking to make sure there is never a risk of predation or drowning, and sometimes – if necessary – waking your turtle up and examining him to make sure he is still alive and healthy.
If you are brumating a reptile for the very first time, like I had to do last year when Bruce got ready for winter dormancy, it is a VERY good idea to talk a lot with your exotic animal veterinarian and make sure to run your setup by your vet before you put your turtle in to brumate.
I stayed in close contact with our vet all during Bruce’s first brumation period, and it sure helped me ease the stress I was feeling! I also did dig him up at one point after a particularly fierce rainstorm just to check and make sure he was still okay. He was….and he didn’t seem any the worse for being woken, but I sure felt a lot better!
If seasonal temperatures tend to fluctuate from week to week and year to year, it is not at all uncommon to see a brumating reptile temporarily wake up and emerge for a day or few…only to head right back down into the hibernaculum as soon as it turns cold again.
Once the day and evening temperature begins to consistently rise and stay above 60 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit, you can expect to see your reptile emerge shortly thereafter. If you don’t see this happen, it is perfectly fine to go in and dig your pet up to check on them!
While box turtles are definitely “land” turtles, in the sense that in many ways, their habits and environments more closely resemble that of tortoises or terrapins than of true aquatic turtles, they also love to swim.
Some box turtles will swim several times a day, taking time between swims to dry off and warm up again before going in for another dip.
If the water is warm and sufficiently shallow to allow for resting in place while in the pool, a box turtle might spend quite a bit of time swimming during the warm season!
Of course, since box turtles are “land” turtles, no box turtle will do well in a water-based habitat, and too much moisture exposure can lead to shell rot and illness.
But if you offer your box turtle a sufficiently roomy pool with easy entry/exit that isn’t too deep (water that comes up only as high as mid-shell or lower), it will likely get lots of use!
The most important thing to remember here is that box turtles, like all other reptiles, can’t self-regulate their body temperature. So pool-side safety is a must.
Whether the proffered body of water is a small local stream, a water dish, a kiddie pool or a bathtub, make sure the water is tepid to warmish, and never leave your boxie unsupervised in a water-only environment.
Also, chlorinated pools should always be off limits. Chlorine can be very toxic to box turtles (along with most other beings).
I’ve lost count of the number of times people have asked me if turtles (or tortoises, for that matter) outgrow their shells and need new ones.
This is actually a great question, especially for anyone who has ever been lucky enough to watch hermit crabs battling it out for a bit of prime “found” real estate.
Truly, I’m not sure why I never wondered about this myself, although maybe it was because I grew up keeping turtles and watching both them and their shells get progressively bigger without the insides ever outgrowing the outsides.
But it is still totally a fair question.
A turtle’s shell, box turtle or otherwise, is actually a type of skeleton that is a lot like a person’s spine. As such, the shell – both the upper part (carapace) and the lower part (plastron) – is part of the turtle’s whole body, not an extra “addition” tacked on after the fact for protection or shelter or something like that.
The vertebrae of the turtle’s spine are partially fused to the carapace, specifically the middle section of vertebrae. The top section of vertebrae are free to allow the turtle to move its head and neck. The bottom section of vertebrae are similarly un-fused to allow the turtle to move its tail freely.
The carapace handles keeping all the vertebrae connected and talking to one another, while the plastron is responsible for providing a point of contact for the clavicles (shoulders) and rib cage.
Then the exterior portion of the shell is covered in protective shingles called “scutes.” The scutes are kind of like human fingernails, only stronger and thicker. They provide protection to the shell itself.
The most important thing to remember here is that the shell is a living, breathing part of the turtle or tortoise – just like any other organ or tissue. The shell is sustained with oxygen, blood and nerves. If bitten, cut, compressed or scraped in whole or in part, the turtle’s shell may crack, split, bleed, rot or worse.
A turtle’s shell will continue to grow with its occupant all throughout the turtle’s life. At some point, both turtle and shell will stop growing in an “I’m trying to get bigger” sort of way and reach the turtle’s full adult shape and size.
But even then, the turtle’s shell is always shoring itself up and replenishing its keratin shield, just like a person’s skin is always replenishing and renewing itself.