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Got Nature? Question: What do I do with hatching turtles?

September 11, 2014
Box turtle.

One of the most common questions people ask me is what to do with baby, orphaned wildlife that they find. Recently, a homeowner from Carmel asked for advice regarding two hatchling box turtles her family found in their yard. In early June they saw the mother laying eggs. They watched the nest periodically throughout the summer only to find two hatchlings just before Labor Day. They wanted to help the young turtles survive, but didn’t know what exactly they should do.

Much to the surprise of most people, my answer to this question is almost always “nothing” regardless of the species. I can’t fault people for wanting to help. That shows me they care about wildlife and are concerned for their well-being. After all, that is a big reason why I got into my line of work. And when it comes to baby animals, we tend to really get concerned. Perhaps that is just the nurturing instinct of parents. We can sometimes forget that wildlife behave very differently than us.

Box turtles may mate anytime during the activity season. During field studies of box turtles in southern Indiana, I encountered pairs mating most often in late summer. After mating, females will store the sperm and delay fertilization up to four years. The following summer (usually late-May to early June), she will locate a nest site, dig the nest, deposit the clutch of eggs, and subsequently conceal the nest. The selection of nest sites is unknown, but they generally return to the same area year after year. Some hypothesize they are returning to their own natal region since this is the case for other species of turtles. Once the female deposits her clutch of eggs, they are on their own – box turtles offer no parental care of eggs or hatchlings.

Our good-intended homeowner questioned if the hatchlings she found should be moved to a large state forest (some distance away), a local nature center, or the park across the street where she thought the mother came from. Because hatchlings and juvenile box turtles are hard to find, there is very little information known about their movements. It really is not known if the hatching turtles would attempt to cross the street because that is the presumed home of their mother. However, since the wooded park clearly offers better habitat than the housing development, saving the young from a potentially perilous journey across the road is probably ok.

Moving them a long distance away is probably not a good idea and simply not necessary. Based on research of adult movements, we know adult box turtles are very familiar with their home range and are capable of finding this area if displaced from it by up to 3.3 km. Turtles moved a long distance away from their home range may establish a new home range, but may also wander great distances looking for home. Similarly, taking the hatchling turtles to a nature center or wildlife rehabilitator isn’t really necessary. They are perfectly fine on their own as long as they have good habitat. Also, maintaining a population of box turtles in the park depends on the influx of new turtles.

Resources
Turtles of Indiana, The Education Store
Turtles in Your Yard, Everything Wildlife
Box Turtle, Indiana Department of Natural Resources
Indiana DNR Orphaned and Injured Animals 
Got Nature? - Ask a Specialist

Brian MacGowan, Extension Wildlife Specialist
Department of Forestry and Natural Resources

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