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For Love of Nature: Help turtles, and don’t keep them
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For Love of Nature

For Love of Nature: Help turtles, and don’t keep them

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As of July 1, it became illegal to keep Eastern box turtles as pets in Virginia because these popular reptiles are in decline.

We know intuitively that turtles are in trouble; we see the evidence on roads and in the destruction of wild spaces. Unfortunately, there also are many poachers and average people grabbing them for pets.

The ban on pet box turtles is part of a larger effort by the Department of Wildlife Resources to protect reptiles and amphibians.

Another rule reduces the number of common native reptiles and amphibians people can keep as pets. Previously, you could keep up to five of most species — for example, five garter snakes, plus five bullfrogs, etc. The new rules cut that to one animal, not one of each species, per household.

Under the new rules, violators could be found guilty of a Class 3 misdemeanor and fined up to $500. Additionally, having three box turtles could draw fines totaling $1,500, and the animals could be confiscated.

People who had box turtles and other native reptiles, and amphibians as pets before the new rules took effect can keep them as long as they register them with the wildlife department.

Several readers have recently shared observations about box turtles. One enjoyed watching them spend the morning devouring a fungus.

Another sent a photo of three buried in the mud, likely as a way to avoid the heat. Turtles bury themselves for a number of reasons, including hibernation and safety.

A third reader worries people are intentionally running over turtles in the road. I hope that is a rarity, but we all can do a better job avoiding these slow-moving creatures.

When safe, it’s good to help a turtle cross the road, but remember, move it in the direction it was headed because that’s where it’s going!

Turtles are omnivores and feast on snails, insects, berries, carrion, fungi, slugs, worms, roots, flowers, fish, frogs, snakes, salamanders and eggs. The young are primarily carnivorous, while adults are primarily herbivorous.

Reproduction does not come readily or easily to Eastern box turtles. It can take a female box turtle 10 to 20 years to reach sexual maturity.

When she is ready to breed, she must first encounter a mate in her home territory that overlaps with his. Turtles rarely travel beyond a half-mile from where they were born.

If the eggs hatch, the hatchlings will be extremely vulnerable to predation, and few make it to adulthood.

Interestingly, incubation temperature determines the sex of the offspring. Between 72 and 81 degrees, hatchings are male. Above 81, they are female.

Given the odds against reproductive success for box turtles, it’s important to their long-term viability not to remove any adults from their territory.

Box turtle mating season continues through summer. A male may mate with the same female several years in a row.

Amazingly, females can lay fertile eggs up to four years after a successful mating — if they are not run over or kept as a pet.

Shannon Brennan can be reached at shannonw481@gmail.com.

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