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!
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:
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…
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…