Everybody knows turtles take their time when traversing the landscape, and they sometimes even need a little help from their human friends when crossing a roadway. They may be slower than their reptilian counterparts (Hey! They are the oldest living reptile group on the planet!), but they are no less fascinating. In Missouri, there are 18 species of turtles from three groups: hard-shelled aquatic turtles, hard-shelled land turtles (aka box turtles), and softshells.
While turtles lost their teeth and gained a tough, horny beak through evolution, these ancient creatures cannot withstand rapid changes to their environment, so the right habitat is required for them to continue their long heritage. Of the 21 reptiles listed on the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Missouri Species and Communities of Conservation Concern Checklist, four are turtles: the western chicken turtle, Blanding’s turtle, and the yellow mud turtle are listed as state endangered, and the alligator snapping turtle is proposed as a federally threatened species.
On our prairies you may encounter Missouri’s two species of box turtles, unique for their highly domed shell, hinged plastron (bottom shell) and ability to draw their head and legs inside for protection. Three-toed box turtles (Terrapene carolina triunguis) are typically found in wooded habitats, although they can be found in prairies and grasslands too. One study showed they can be found seasonally on prairie/grasslands in late spring before moving back into the woods during the heat of summer. Mating usually occurs from late April to early July. An average of five eggs are laid at night in a 3-4-inch-deep nest hole dug by the female in loose soil. Incredibly, if the right conditions are not available to her, the female three-toed box turtle is able to store viable sperm to fertilize eggs for up to four years after mating.
A more characteristic prairie inhabitant is the ornate box turtle (Terrapene ornata), which gets its name from its brown carapace (top shell) that has bright yellow, patterned lines. They are active from late March to mid-October. One study in Kansas found these turtles overwintering in burrows up to 29 inches deep in open prairie habitat. These primarily insectivorous turtles also rely on grassland habitat for food, with 90 percent of their diet consisting of grasshoppers, beetles, and caterpillars. After a two-to-three-month incubation period, similar to that of the three-toed box turtle, tiny hatchlings arrive and, in the right conditions, can live to about 30 years old. So, if you see a turtle on the roadway, try and avoid it if you can safely, or if you stop to move it off the road, move it in the direction its heading. If you see a turtle on a prairie, take a picture and send it our way– we’d love to see it, too! To learn more about these and other Missouri reptiles, read The Amphibians and Reptiles of Missouri, by Jeffrey T. Briggler and Tom R. Johnson.
Details to help identify a mature, ornate box turtle include: the dark brown carapace (top shell) with prominent yellow radiating lines, a distinctive yellow stripe down the middle (but no ridge), and it is also slightly flattened on top. The plastron (bottom shell) is also dark brown with numerous yellow lines and the typical hinge. There are four claws on each hind foot. Like the three-toed box turtle males’ eyes have a reddish iris and the females are brownish.
Details to help identify a mature, three-toed box turtle include: olive or olive-brown carapace (top shell), with faint yellow or orange lines and usually a faint ridge down the middle. The bottom shell (plastron) is yellowish and mostly unmarked and has the characteristic hinge that allows a box turtle to close its shell. Typically, there are three toes on each hind leg. Males will have greater amounts of reddish on their front legs, neck and head than females, and red irises.
Photos courtesy Bruce Schuette