Turtle Surprise

Look, I don’t know everything. Sometimes, I think people expect me to be able to identify any plant or insect they show me because I have this blog. I appreciate their confidence, but it’s badly misplaced. I’m a decent naturalist, but there’s an awful lot I still have to learn. This week, I learned something new about ornate box turtles. I’m sure many of you already know what I learned, so that’ll make you feel good, won’t it? Everybody wins.

My education started one morning last week at The Niobrara Valley Preserve. I was driving back to the headquarters after some morning photography when I noticed a little turtle head sticking out of the water in a buffalo wallow full of water. My first thought was that the painted turtle in that wallow had made quite a journey to get there, since it was about a mile from the river and there were only temporary ponds in-between. Something made me stop and take another look, though, because the head didn’t quite look right. Sure enough, it wasn’t a painted turtle, it was an ornate box turtle!

An ornate box turtle poking its head out of a temporary pond in a bison wallow.

I stopped to see if I could get a photo of the turtle and managed just one before it dove beneath the water. I waited a few minutes for it to come back up and then got bored and wandered around the edge of the pool, looking for other little critters – keeping a watchful eye on where the turtle had been. About 10 minutes later, its head popped back up, but this time it didn’t let me photograph it again before it disappeared. I’d never heard of box turtles being underwater before, so I figured this might be a weirdo turtle and was glad I’d gotten a photo of it. I hopped back in the truck and kept moving.

Two minutes later, I drove past a smaller pond and stopped in astonishment because there was another turtle head sticking out of it. This time, I was able to reach in and grab the turtle after it submerged. Here is a photo of it:

A male box turtle, right after I pulled it out of the pond. (Red eyes = male, brown eyes = female) You can tell it was super happy I grabbed it.

I couldn’t believe I’d never seen the phenomenon before and had now seen it twice in the same morning. As I was having that thought, I noticed movement on the other side of the small pool and spotted a THIRD box turtle leaving the pond and heading back to the prairie. I photographed it too…

Box turtle #3 (female)
Another photo of #3

By this time, it was clear the underwater box turtle was a thing, despite my former ignorance. When I got back, I sent a message to Dan Fogell (my herpetologist friend) and asked him about it. Dan said it’s pretty common, especially during hot weather, for box turtles to submerge themselves, or otherwise take up water. Also, Chelsea (Hubbard Fellow) said it’s common for other land tortoises, based on what she’s learned about her own pet tortoise and others.

Dan said the submerging in water helps them hydrate and that they’ll take advantage of standing water whenever it is available during hot weather periods. He also said box turtles have a kind of accessory “bladder” they fill with water to help them soften hard soil when they’re trying to dig through it. That’s a pretty cool little tidbit.

So, box turtles like to swim. Who knew? Probably you. I didn’t. This is exactly the kind of discovery that keeps me excited about prairies and prairie ecology. It doesn’t matter if my discoveries are new to science as long as they’re new to me. There are plenty of discoveries for me still waiting out there…

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.

16 thoughts on “Turtle Surprise

  1. Chris,
    Good post on Ornate behavior, and I have seen this with box turtles in western Kansas after a rain on several occasions. Also, Dan is a great resource and I have spoken with him at herpetological gatherings over the years.

  2. Nice tidbit on the ornate Box Turtles.Chris, I have one that I use when doing turtle presentations. The box turtle is in trouble in many areas where they once roamed freely. Due to fragmentation and other human interference like pet collectors their numbers are decreasing at an alarming rate. I find mine in the water daily this time of year. She also seems to like relieving itself when in it small water pond. Thank you for sharing.

    PS: I would be cautious in sharing where you found them, it is promising that you found so many in a short distance.

  3. What a great post! I did not know this about box turtles either. Thanks for sharing and for being a good example of the learning process. I am going to look at ephemeral ponds more closely when the weather is hot from now on.

  4. The turtles (which I’ve never seen) are delightful, and this sentence is especially cheering: “It doesn’t matter if my discoveries are new to science as long as they’re new to me.”

  5. Only small box turtles can float to the waters surface and get air. Larger ones sink like a rock and are not able to surface. I found this out while experimenting with escape ramps for windmill tanks. Smaller box turtles swam the edge of the tank and quickly exited on the ramp. Large ones went to the bottom and never came back up.

    • That’s very possible. I have a central American turtle that is similar to box turtles in shape (high dome) and life history. My turtle regulates her flotation, spitting out bubbles to explore the bottom, then paddling to the surface and hanging for a bit with her shell well below surface. She’ll then inhale to bring her shell fully to the surface.
      I could imagine large box turtles aren’t adapted to deep water. But I could also imagine they are adapted, but only if they have a moment to gulp some air before going under.
      If you just dropped them in, I don’t blame you. I might have done the same.

  6. Try bring a thermometer and measuring the surface temperature of the ground. The temperature is probably in excess of 120 degrees F. There is not a lot of shade in prairies. Smart turtles.

  7. Who knew is right. I certainly would not have looked for a box turtle in water. I’ve never seen them near the stuff. Thanks for keeping me from flo
    undering in ignorance–about this tidbit anyway.

  8. The fact that you see three box turtles by simply “driving around” tells me you’re hanging out in some pretty special places!! Thanks for the entertaining article … and don’t let Chris fool you folks, he knows more than most!

  9. I think that is why many people, like myself, really enjoy your blog Chris. The perspective from which you write your blog, is one that brings the reader along on your journey of discovery in the prairie. One will never know everything, and I am thankful you are an honest person. I love what you do here. Keep up the great work!

  10. Wish we had them on our little acre, but we’re too deserty. One county over it’s more grassland, and I see box turtles after a good rain, when they soak in puddles in the dirt roads. Such cool animals and love to observe them. Thanks for the post, Chris.

  11. Hi Chris,

    This is so cool, I learned something new! Can we share this on Nachusa Grasslands’ media somehow? Susan Kleiman

    On Tue, Jul 23, 2019 at 2:12 PM The Prairie Ecologist wrote:

    > Chris Helzer posted: ” Look, I don’t know everything. Sometimes, I think > people expect me to be able to identify any plant or insect they show me > because I have this blog. I appreciate their confidence, but it’s badly > misplaced. I’m a decent naturalist, but there’s an awful” >

  12. Pingback: Other Native Plant Blogs: The Prairie Ecologist | New Moon Nursery


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