TWS2021: Box turtles prefer native flora, avoid disturbance

By Joshua Rapp Learn

Ornate box turtle numbers are dropping in New Mexico. Credit: Ivana Mali

Ornate box turtles are found widely across parts of the Great Plains of the United States, but researchers don’t know a lot about their habitat preferences in New Mexico.

TWS member MJ Suriyamongkol, a PhD student at Southern Illinois University, and her team worried about the reptiles declining in the state. They wanted to gain a better understanding of the way the turtles use the landscape.

In research presented at The Wildlife Society’s virtual 2021 Annual Conference, Suriyamongkol described how her team walked transect lines through 34 different areas from August to October in 2018 looking for ornate box turtles (Terrapene ornata ornata)—a subspecies of the western box turtle (T. ornata).

Suriyamongkol and her fellow students during fieldwork. Credit: Ivana Mali

While other researchers didn’t have success with this strategy in the past, Suriyamongkol, who was a master’s student at Eastern New Mexico University at the time of the research, found that it worked fairly well in their area, despite some unruly encounters with angry cows.

“They were chasing us—it was very scary,” she said.

The best time to find turtles was in the morning from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m., they discovered. They also found the turtles preferred areas with native vegetation as opposed to areas disturbed by humans or croplands.

“Keeping a native pristine habitat for the box turtle is very essential,” Suriyamongkol said.

A baby ornate box turtle in the field. Credit: Ivana Mali

The work they did is important for understanding large-scale habitat associations and the occurrence of box turtles in eastern New Mexico. Based on informal discussions with locals, the turtles may be declining in the state, Suriyamongkol said. Ornate box turtles aren’t protected in New Mexico, although they are in some surrounding states. But the turtles face problems from roadkill and from people collecting them as pets.

The recent droughts and flooding experienced there could be affecting ornate box turtles as well, she said—in one recent flood, Darren Pollock, a biology professor at Eastern New Mexico University, found a number of dead turtles as the water subsided. But it’s unclear whether the flood killed these reptiles or just transported carcasses that had already died from drought or other causes earlier, Suriyamongkol said.

For now, other researchers are currently working on data that Suriyamongkol helped collect using radio telemetry tracking. They hope this analysis will teach them more about the home range size of ornate box turtles in New Mexico.

Joshua LearnJoshua Rapp Learn is a science writer at The Wildlife Society. Contact him at jlearn@wildlife.org with any questions or comments about his article.

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