My previous Eastern Box turtle radio telemetry projects.
Before I started working as outdoor educator and naturalist at Earthshine Mountain Lodge I set up three different Eastern Box Turtle radio tracking projects. Here are the highlights of those studies.
Turtle #1, spring and summer 2002. While working on another project "Operation Horridus" I found my first study subject in an old apple orchard. It was an adult male with a bad, but nicely healed, injury to his left rear leg and part of his shell. I applied a Holohil Systems radio transmitter and released the turtle where I had found him.
For the first few days he wandered from shelter site to shelter site in the middle of the orchard, probably foraging for slugs, snails, insects and other Box turtle buffet items. Then as the weather became very hot and dry, he headed for the nearby woods where he sat under some Rhododendrons a few feet from the top of a 300 foot high southeast facing cliff for a few days.
He then moved a few hundred yards uphill, over a ridge and then "dug in" under the thick leaf litter on the side of a hill above an almost dry spring. There he stayed there, in his form for about two months--the hottest part of the summer--only moving a few feet at a time.
One very hot day after locating the turtle as I was slowly making my way up a steep mountainside in a Laurel thicket, I pushed back some limbs only to reveal a watermelon-sized white-faced hornets nest about three feet from my face! I froze as I watched the guards at the entrance swivel their heads in eerie slow motion to look in my direction at this new threat to their remote home. I felt a surge of adrenaline and fear...I had had many dealings with these guys as a child and I did not want to deal with them again. I turned and bolted back downhill through the thick shrubs--with hornets hot on my tail. I stumbled, ran and dove through the laurels and Rhododendrons (while carrying my antenna!) for about 50-60 feet until I could not run any longer and I collapsed on the dry leaves. As I lay as still as possible trying to catch my breath I watched the direction I had just run and saw perhaps 10-15 hornets slowly making their way through the thicket in search of the creature that disturbed their home...me! I couldn't believe it, they had tracked me through the dense laurel thicket probably following my frantic puffs of CO2 and fear pheromones...I sprang up, uttered a Shakespearean curse that would make pirates cringe and ran straight uphill as fast as I could to the top of the ridge about 200 feet away where I fell flat on the ground exhausted and breathless in the sweltering mid-summer heat. I lay there for about 20 minuets watching and listening for the hornets but they never came...I had somehow evaded them without a sting. Now that was a close call.
A few days later, after several days of soaking afternoon thunderstorms, the turtle moved about 300 feet east and the radio signal vanished.
I searched and searched one day for hours looking for the transmitter signal and was about to give up when I found it in a small clearing. It was still transmitting but the signal was very faint and seemed to be underground in a small clearing. As I approached I realized that the transmitter wasn't underground--it had been removed from the turtles shell, chewed on, and the turtle was gone. Looking around the clearing I discovered bear tracks and fresh (still warm!) bear scat (poo) a few feet from the transmitter. The transmitter had what looked like tooth marks in it and most of the antenna was missing--no wonder the signal had been weak. There was no sign of blood but there was also no sign of the turtle. The evidence makes it seem that a bear may have eaten the turtle but without further evidence I have to say--I do not know. Did another animal such as a coyote or raccoon chew off the transmitter while trying to eat the turtle, and then a bear came along later only to relieve himself at the scene of the crime--I do not know. There is no way to know exactly what happened but we can only assume that it probably did not end well for the turtle because of his handicap--his shell was not intact.
That particular turtle was very vulnerable to predators because his shell had been damaged by an encounter with what may have been an orchard mower. This left gaps between the carapace and the plastron where a predator could easily get a tooth or claw inside and make a lunch of him. I was sad to speculate that he may have been eaten but I was happy that the bear had not eaten the transmitter...if he had, I may have found the transmitter...and the turtle...inside a happily sleeping bear!
Turtle #2, late summer 2002. I later tracked another turtle using the same transmitter that I had used with Turtle #1--after having the antenna repaired. This turtle, an adult female, wandered in a circular path, stopping at a Blackberry patch for a few days before finally following a spring uphill. She then paralleled a steep mountainside for several weeks before I lost the signal either to a transmitter malfunction or a sad mishap in the life of the turtle. There were many roads and a housing development nearby so it could have been hit by a car or taken by a child as a "pet".
Turtle #3, summer 2003. The third turtle, an adult male, was found by campers at a boys camp where I worked as head naturalist. As naturalist I developed a Turtle Tracking Program so interested campers could learn about wildlife conservation and management, data collection and box turtles. I applied a Holohil Systems transmitter to his carapace and we tracked this turtle for several weeks and discovered that he seemed to spend most of his time around a small field that contained several blackberry bushes. Near the end of the summer he made his way toward a pond where his signal was lost on the closing day of camp. I searched the entire area for many weeks afterward thinking I would eventually find him but I never again found his signal.
Although I can only speculate as to the demise of this turtle, I have ruled out a transmitter malfunction. The unit was brand new and had been working properly for several months. I have also ruled out an accident with a vehicle since the area where he was last seen was far from roads or development. The final factor that seems to be the most probable is that this turtle probably went home with one of the campers who had tracked the turtle with me the day before and knew the general area where he could be found.
My conclusion about my first three tracking studies with box turtles is above all--patience. Box turtles are slow and don't seem to do very much from the human perspective--but their life is so very interesting and important. To have the opportunity to experience the life of a these three box turtles in the wild was a great learning experience for all those involved. Box turtles are extremely important and beautiful creatures that are in desperate need our understanding and protection.
While it is sad that all three of these turtle tracking projects seemed to end bad and with unanswered questions, it teaches us a great lesson, a lesson that we still have much to learn about the complexities of life on this Earth and that life in the wild is not easy. These beautiful and gentle creatures that we may only see occasionally crossing the roads, fields or forests are amazingly adapted to life out there and although they can survive almost anything nature can throw at them, it is our human onslaught that they cannot weather. It is for this reason that we must adapt to their needs since they cannot adapt to ours. We must help them across the road, raise our mowers, burn our brush piles soon after building them and never move box turtles from their homes and never keep them as pets.
Check out my current Eastern Box Turtle conservation and education project Turtle Tracks taking place at Earthshine Lodge.