A post has been shared on Facebook recently regarding box turtles. The post reads, “Did you know a Box turtle only roams 1 mile its whole life? If it is removed from its area/home then for the rest of its life it will roam aimlessly stressed out ... trying to find “home” until it dies a very sad death.”
While the post may falsely anthropomorphize turtles, the message is clear and a beneficial reminder regarding all animals we might encounter. Let’s discuss.
Research on ornate box turtles, the Kansas state reptile and a common turtle found in central Kansas, have shown the majority of turtles do not venture very far during their lives. Scientists describe the area that an animal lives during a period of time as its home range. Multiple studies of ornate box turtles have calculated their home range to be as low as 0.5 acres to as high as 143 acres, but most studies have shown an average home range of less than 20 acres (or less than 15 football fields; for reference, 484 football fields can fit in one square mile).
It is a fact that most box turtles do not move very far in their lifetimes in their natural environment, but if physically moved, will they die or get “home sick”? It is hard to know if reptiles, or other animals, have “feelings.” Regardless, other studies have shown that various reptile species that are translocated often do not function normally. Translocated tortoises, lizards and snakes have all been documented to have increased movement and surface activity leading to increased predation. And, most reptile translocation studies have documented the lack of reproduction by individuals, even though they may survive. Over the long term, the lack of reproducing individuals will drastically impact populations.
The “take home” message is that removing an animal from its natural habitat is not a good idea. Despite scientists’ attempts to describe it, we do not fully understand all the reasons why animals live where they do. Time and again, we’ve seen that even small changes or omissions to an animal’s microhabitat can totally alter its everyday life.
This past Saturday, July 20, the Kansas Wetlands Education Center sponsored the turtle races at the Ellinwood After Harvest Festival. Turtle races are notorious for promoting the removal and translocation of thousands of turtles every year. Some turtle races even have a contest for decorating the turtles, many of which involve painting or gluing items to the turtles, which are then often released with these decorations into a habitat that is not even remotely correct for that turtle species. Consequently, for the AHF turtle races, KWEC catches and provides all the turtles (sliders and painted turtles) to be used for the races and then releases them back to the locations they were caught. No other turtles are accepted into the races.
Without a doubt, there is benefit from kids being able to handle and keep animals and learn about them. This is exactly the reason KWEC has a live animal exhibit and uses live animals in many of our programs. And, the turtle races give a good chance for people to see turtles up close and gives KWEC staff an opportunity to teach people about the turtles, while hopefully minimizing the affects on the turtles.
Nature is tough on wildlife. While humans can do things to help wildlife, our actions usually are not as beneficial as we might think, and can even be fatal.
Next time you see a turtle or other animal in the wild that you think would be a great pet, remember that you are not going to be able to provide everything that animal needs. Observe it in the wild, learn about it at home, and respect it for the future.