Box Turtles & Gopher Tortoises

I feel like they should have names. Maybe I’ll call them Fred and Wilma. They have lived in my yard for years. I’m not sure exactly where their home is but they appear once or twice a year like ghosts out of the fog—or I should say out of the iris beds. Sometimes just Fred, sometimes just Wilma, and occasionally one of their offspring. Once, my wife saw Fred and Wilma together right there in the middle of the lawn. That’s how we discovered which one was Fred and which one was Wilma. Fred’s plastron (bottom of the shell) is concave, allowing him to mount Wilma for breeding. They are box turtles.

The box turtle is a medium-sized, terrestrial turtle, about 5 – 6 inches long with a high, rounded shell that is dark with yellow and orange splotches. The front third of the plastron is hinged, allowing the box turtle to close itself inside (hence, the name).

Box turtles are omnivorous and eat everything from mushrooms, fruits, and vegetation to worms, slugs, and insects. These animals are long-lived (perhaps reaching 50 years old or more) and take over five years to reach maturity. Eastern box turtles mate from around April to October, then hibernate through the colder months from October or November until April.

Common throughout the eastern United States, box turtles are found in a variety of habitats like open hardwood forests and fields or wetland edges. They also do quite well in my backyard. They are survivors that can apparently adapt to an unconventional habitat, unlike their cousin the gopher tortoise.

The gopher tortoise was designated Georgia’s State Reptile in 1989 and is now listed as “threatened”. It is considered a keystone species in the rapidly disappearing longleaf pine/wiregrass ecosystem because its burrows provide shelter for hundreds of other species living in their habitat.

A keystone is the wedge-shaped stone at the apex of a masonry arch. It is the last piece placed during construction and locks all the stones into position, allowing the arch or vault to bear weight. A keystone species is a species on which other species in an ecosystem largely depend. It can be any organism, from animals and plants to bacteria and fungi. It is not necessarily the largest or most plentiful species in an ecological community, but if a keystone is removed, it sets off a chain of events that turns the structure and biodiversity of its habitat into something different.

A keystone might be a predator, like the timber wolf of western North America, which keeps the population and range of their prey in check. Remove a keystone predator, and the population of creatures it once hunted can explode, pushing out other organisms and reducing species diversity.

Keystone prey, which include animals ranging from Antarctic krill to Canadian snowshoe hares, also have a big role to play in the ecosystem. They serve as a critical food source for predator populations. But keystone prey must be resilient creatures, unlike some other types of prey species that are more susceptible to becoming rare or extinct within an ecosystem.

A keystone can also be an ecosystem engineer. Instead of impacting the food supply, animals like beavers, African elephants, and gopher tortoises can create, modify, or maintain the surrounding landscape. They influence the prevalence and activities of other organisms and help define the overall biodiversity of their habitat.

So, gopher tortoises are the “influencers” of the animal kingdom. Human influencers are people who use their fame to influence the decisions of the masses. They are mostly people I have never heard of and who are famous for being famous. The only ones I can think of are Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, and the Kardashians.

My box turtles, Fred and Wilma, on the other hand, are not influencers or ecosystem engineers. They are like me, just going about their daily lives and quietly minding their own business. I don’t know where they are at the moment. I don’t know where they live, whether they have bred, or where Wilma might lay her eggs. But I’m glad they are poking about in the underbrush outside my house, eating mushrooms, worms, and bugs.

Their quiet life represents all of us who lead quiet lives. We can’t all be bigshot influencers or keystones, holding our communities together. Some of us just ARE. We lead lives, as Henry David Thoreau suggested, “of quiet desperation”. Most of us are like Fred and Wilma, enjoying life’s pleasures, enduring life’s pain, and hoping to find a worm or two in the leaf-litter of our existence. 

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