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Family Nature Exploration Program Yields “Unusual Find”!

By Robin M. Lee,  MA, Education Coordinator, Schrader Center — Nature Wonder Programs offered through the Schrader Environmental Education Center (SEEC) are designed to foster an interest and knowledge of the regional environment while strengthening the relationships of family members to nature. This summer,  a weekly family hike for the littlest naturalists and their families is being held every Wednesday at 12:30pm. Each week local families and visitors of Oglebay Park take advantage of this opportunity to explore a habitat in the Park with a backpack and staff member of the Schrader Center.

Last week’s group hiked down to the stream and found an unusual creature hunkered down in the muddy creek bank. Identified by its dome shaped carapace (top part of the shell) by two brothers visiting from out-of-state, it was a large box turtle (terrapene) or box tortoise,  land living “turtle”.  Not uncommon in the woodlands of the Eastern United States (and parts of Mexico), the Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina) can live to be over 50 years old!

What made our box “tortoise” so special was the large size and its location, as it was submerged completely in the mud, no head or feet to be seen, only it’s easily identifiable carapace visible.  Great care was given to dig out the turtle for closer observation as its head and tail were completely under the mud.  Finding which end was the head of the box turtle was important to prevent a possible pinch. Box turtles have a hinge in their plastron (bottom part of their shell) that can close and pinch, like a door, to protect it from natural predators (mammals like minksskunksraccoons, dogs and rodents, and also birds like crows and some snakes which are known to kill box turtles.

Once the turtle’s head was exposed, one of the young nature explorers, 6-year-old Oliver, a visitor to the Park, said, “It’s a boy turtle”! When asked why he thought it was a boy, he stated that the turtle has a red eye color, which he had learned at a nature day camp in his home state.  Oliver was correct, as eye color is one of the indicators of a box turtle’s gender.  When asked if anyone knew how old the turtle might be, everyone gathered around to learn to count its scutes  (scales) on its carapace (top).  We used a magnifying glass and counted 30 or more rings in one scute. While this method is a good indicator for an estimate of age, it is not always accurate to the exact year.

After observing, and naming, our 30-year-old plus turtle “Boxy”, we released him pointing him toward the woods. Box turtles are one of the most “neglected” species of reptiles in the United States.  While seemingly easy to maintain in the warmer months after finding one, box turtle’s nutritional requirements for storing fat to get through hibernation can be very tricky….and if awakened after they hibernate, they can starve to death.  Many box turtles die annually by unintentional neglect in captivity.  You cannot “fake out” a box turtle. They already know daylight is getting shorter and the nights are getting cooler and should be looking for their perfect winter home within the next month. So, a true naturalist, one who explores, observes, records and respects nature, lives by this rule of thumb: “When it doubt, let it out!”

Get your little naturalist out and join us for the LAST HIKE OF THE SEASON this Wednesday, August 22 at 12:30pm at the Schrader Center! Call us at 304-242-6855 for more information.

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