Species: Three-toed box turtle
Scientific name: Terrapene Carolina triunguis
Claim to fame: The three-toed box turtle is one of the two species of box turtles commonly seen in this part of the state; the other is the ornate box turtle (Terrapene ornata ornata). Spring and summer are when you begin to see three-toed box turtles, and other types of turtles, crossing the road.
Species status: Despite the large number of turtles that get killed by motorists each year, three-toed box turtle numbers in Missouri appear to be relatively stable.
First discovered: The first biological description of the three-toed box turtle was written by the famed naturalist Louis Agassiz in 1857.
Family matters: Three-toed box turtles are one of four sub-species of box turtle (Terrapene carolina) found in North America. Three-toed box turtles are found across most of Missouri as well as several other Midwestern states.
Length: The average length of a three-toed box turtle is four to five inches.
Diet: Food habits change as the three-toed box turtle matures. Young turtles eat mostly insects and earthworms while the majority of an adult’s diet is plant materials.
Distinguishing characteristics: Three-toed box turtles are small terrestrial turtles with high-domed shells and normally, three toes on each hind limb. The upper shell (carapace) is usually some tone of olive-brown. The bottom part of the shell (plastron) is either plain yellow or yellow with brown smudges or lines. The plastron has a distinct single hinge across the front third of the shell.
Life span: Studies have shown three-toed box turtles can live more than 60 years in the wild, but due to heavy mortality from automobiles, few make it that long.
Habitat: Three-toed box turtles can be found in a number of settings in Missouri, but they seem to have a habitat preference for mature oak-hickory forests with numerous openings and edge areas along brushy fields.
Life cycle: Courtship and breeding occurs from spring well into summer. In Missouri, most egg-laying takes place from mid-May to early July. At dusk, a female will select an elevated, open patch of loose soil dig a shallow hole and deposit the eggs in the hole and cover them up. Eggs will hatch in about three months. As far as turtles crossing roads, they cross for several reasons. Some of the turtles seen crossing the roads are searching for better habitat, others are searching for food and still others are males searching for mates. There’s nothing wrong with helping a turtle cross the road, as long as you stop at a location and in a manner that won’t endanger you, your vehicle or other drivers on the road. When you move a turtle, make sure you move it across the road in the direction it’s traveling. If you set it back in the spot from which it came, it will merely try to cross the road again. Over the years, a number of people have tried to capture box turtles and raise them as pets. As a general rule of thumb, it’s been shown wild box turtles do not do well in captive settings (regardless of what you read on the Internet!). In most cases, plucking a box turtle off a highway and taking it home means the turtle will undergo a prolonged period of suffering instead of a quick death. Move it to the other side of the road and then let the turtle be what it was meant to be, a wild animal.