100 Years Of Box Turtles : Short Wave The common box turtle is found just about anywhere in the continental United States east of Colorado. For all their ubiquity, it's unclear how many there are or how they're faring in the face of many threats—from lawn mowers to climate change to criminals. So today, science correspondent Nell Greenfieldboyce presents the researchers hunting for turtles—and for answers. They're creating a century-long study to monitor thousands of box turtles in North Carolina.

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100 Years Of Box Turtles

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EMILY KWONG, BYLINE: You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

GABRIEL SPITZER, HOST:

Hey, SHORT WAVErs. It's senior editor Gabriel Spitzer here in the host chair. And today, we're talking turtles, specifically box turtles, the kind of turtle that you may be familiar with if you live in the U.S., just about anywhere east of Colorado.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: I like to think of the box turtle as just, like, the basic turtle that a lot of American kids run into when they're mucking around outside.

SPITZER: Science correspondent Nell Greenfieldboyce joining us today for turtle talk. Hey, Nell.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Hey. I mean, these are the critters that have got the domed shell, you know, the pattern of yellow blotches. They can have a bright-red eye. And, you know, box turtles roam around forests and gardens and meadows and wetlands. Like, where did you grow up?

SPITZER: I grew up in Ohio, so east of Colorado.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: So did you ever see a box turtle?

SPITZER: Well, yeah, actually. I mean, we had, like, a little strip of trees behind our house that we referred to as the woods. It was really just a pathetic little remnant of a forest. But there were definitely some turtles in there. What about you, Nell?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Basically the same thing. I mean, I grew up in New Jersey. And, you know, we had the woods just like you. And, you know, seeing a box turtle was always special because, you know, they're not as common as crows or robins or something like that. When you do see them, you can go up to them. I mean, they're not like squirrels. They don't just, like, run away from you. They don't try to attack you. And, you know, you can touch them. It's like this magical experience. It's like you're meeting a little wrinkled E.T. And so, you know, this is a common experience, I think. And it's one that Ann Berry Somers remembers really fondly. She is someone who encountered a box turtle when she was 7 years old, and she had this moment of, like, eye contact with it. Like, she feels like they made this connection.

ANN BERRY SOMERS: I was just mesmerized by the fact that there was this beautiful creature that allowed me to touch them and to pick them up. And I was so full of amazement and gratitude for that experience. And it stuck with me.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: She's 70 years old now, and so she's retired from her job teaching biology at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. And she has helped start what could be the biggest, longest box turtle study ever. It's called the Box Turtle Connection. And this thing is going to monitor thousands of box turtles living in dozens of sites across the entire state of North Carolina. And it's going to do it for a century.

SPITZER: That's a really long time.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Yeah, but not to a box turtle...

SPITZER: (Laughter).

GREENFIELDBOYCE: ...Necessarily. I mean, a box turtle can live that long. It takes them close to 10 years to just get mature enough to even be able to reproduce.

SOMERS: So it's a lifespan similar to a human lifespan. Humans can live to be 100-year-old easily if conditions are right.

SPITZER: Today on the show, tracking the longevity of the humble box turtle and how you design a study that will outlast the scientists who started it. You're listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.

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SPITZER: OK. Now, I know that a lot of reptile species are not doing so well worldwide right now because of things like habitat destruction and other, you know, human interference. How are the box turtles doing, overall?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: They are known as the common box turtle, so it seems like they should be common, right?

SPITZER: You would think so, yes.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The trouble is science hasn't really paid all that much attention to them. There have been a few long-term studies - like in Maryland and Florida - that looked at box turtle populations over several decades. And those saw big declines in their numbers, like, 75% or more.

SPITZER: Oh, yeah, that sounds bad.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Yeah. But those studies only looked at box turtles in a single area, like, one wildlife refuge. So it might not reflect the bigger picture. I called up Ken Dodd. He's a herpetologist who literally wrote the book on box turtles. It's called "North American Box Turtles: A Natural History." And I asked him if we had any handle on how box turtle populations are really doing now versus, like, 50 years ago.

KEN DODD: No, no, not even close. Not even close.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says his older colleagues told him anecdotally that box turtles used to be much more common. But over huge swaths of the box turtle's range...

DODD: Nobody's studying them. And if you don't study something, you don't know what the status of it is.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He personally lives in Florida. And he told me the other day he saw a box turtle in his yard.

DODD: Now, I've lived in my house for 37 years. I've never seen this box turtle before. You wonder how many others are walking around our area, Northwest Gainesville. And we just don't know and how they go about their lives. We just don't know.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Still, everyone kind of assumes their numbers must be going down because of all the threats that are out there.

SPITZER: So what are the main threats to these box turtles?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, cars - getting hit on the road, lawnmowers, general loss of habitat to, you know, urbanization and development and, you know, suburban houses and shopping centers. There are some emerging turtle diseases, and then there are these international criminal syndicates.

SPITZER: Nell, are you serious?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Yeah. So these turtles go for big bucks in the international pet trade. Like, earlier this year in North Carolina, one man pled guilty to gathering and selling at least 722 box turtles, plus, like, 125 other turtles. And, you know, he did this for an estimated $120,000.

SPITZER: Oh, my gosh. Wow. That is incredible and a little depressing.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: So you can understand why one of the folks working on North Carolina's big box turtle study agreed to take me to one of its sites but only if I agreed to keep the location secret.

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SPITZER: It is amazing to me that you can just go out and just deliberately find a turtle. You can just go...

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, I can't do that.

SPITZER: ...Look for a box turtle and find one.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: I can't do that. But this guy, John Roe, has developed kind of an uncanny ability to do this. He once found eight box turtles in a single day. He's a biologist at the University of North Carolina, Pembroke. And he and some students spread out with me, looking down at the leaves. You know, we were just sort of going through the forest, looking down. And before too long...

JOHN ROE: Do you see it?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Yes, I do.

ROE: So I had to look at it from, like, a different direction. I circled this, and then I finally saw the yellow head, and that's what stuck out to me.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: It was a small male. You can tell the sex by stuff like the shape of the shell and the tail. And this turtle had V-shaped notches that were made deliberately in a unique pattern around the shell, which identifies this particular turtle as being one in the study.

So what do you think his days are like up here?

ROE: Oh, gosh. I often think about what a turtle might be thinking about, just sitting around and - where the next mushroom bloom is going to be. Or maybe a female is going to walk by today.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: They looked this turtle up in the records and found that he had been first found in 2015, then again in 2016. So, you know, they measured him. They weighed him. They took all kinds of data on him. You know, there's this whole standardized protocol for the study.

SPITZER: Yeah. Yeah. And if they - I mean, if this turtle was originally found in 2015, that means this study has been going on for a few years already.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Yeah. It started back in 2008. And as of now, in late 2022, they've collected data on more than 4,000 box turtles, you know, living in more than 30 sites - so everything from private properties to big state parks, you know, just across the state. And remember, North Carolina is a large state with diverse kinds of habitats. So you've got mountain areas, and you've got more sandy ones that are closer to the shore.

SPITZER: So you got to get a wide swath of turtles for this study. And then this study has more than, like, 80 years left to go?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's right. And it's being done by trained volunteers. So the state government did give them some resources, like access to a secure database so that they can store all of the data and records for the long haul. And, you know, that's really important because, as you can imagine, continuity is key for a study that's this ambitious.

SPITZER: Right. I could see why you wouldn't want to put it on, like, paper that could end up getting lost or chewed up by mice or something as the study gets handed off from one generation of researchers to another. You've got to be thinking about what somebody in 2108 could easily read and use.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Yeah. John Roe told me that when he first heard Ann Somers talking to a local herpetology group about how this study was going to last for a century, he was skeptical.

ROE: I really doubted how long-term we could carry it on for. But then I went to my first Box Turtle Connection training meeting and saw the huge number of the people who came from all across the state to learn how to process and collect the data. And that convinced me otherwise. I thought that this project does have a chance.

SPITZER: Wow. How do they even recruit volunteers to work on something that's not going to be finished until after they're long gone?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Ann Somers told me the researchers don't ask people to participate. They just, like, sit back and wait for people to come to them.

SOMERS: I said, well, you got to make a long-term commitment. And they say, how long? And I go, well, lifetime would be nice, but (laughter) let's go for five years. But a lot of them stay and stay and stay.

SPITZER: OK. So if they do stay, how much work are we talking about here?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: All volunteers really have to do is go about their regular daily life while keeping an eye out for box turtles at their designated site. And almost invariably, they will get to know certain turtles, because these box turtles are homebodies. They generally stick to just a few acres.

SPITZER: For their whole lives?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Yeah. Yeah. When I went to The North Carolina Arboretum, they have some turtles there - box turtles - that have been tagged with radio trackers, so they can follow the movements of those turtles closely.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: There it is.

TRUDIE HENNINGER: You see the turtle? Yay.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Was running away...

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Basically, staffers can just walk around with this receiver that looks like an antenna.

HENNINGER: We can actually follow the beeps to a turtle. And then we can create a map to figure out, like, where turtles are using the property.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's Trudie Henninger. She's a nature educator there.

HENNINGER: I like to look at a turtle and just imagine the wisdom it has of this place that, you know, I might be passing through. And there's something really powerful in that - the slow and the study and the wisdom of age.

SPITZER: Oh, man. These sage, little creatures who know their own little patch of land so, so well.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Right. I mean, she told me that one turtle at the arboretum likes to hang out in the gardens, but it makes this annual trek each summer down to the sort of wetter, boggier areas of the preserve. And everybody knows about its annual...

SPITZER: Wow.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: ...Trek. And it's, like, a big deal among the staff when it happens. And so anyway, all the turtles there are part of the long-term study.

SPITZER: All right. Well, there's a ton of time left in this study, but have they learned anything so far about how box turtles are doing?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, yes and no. I mean, the whole point of this study is not to just, like, document declines if they're happening but to see, you know, which turtles are the ones that are in trouble and, you know, maybe get hints about how to help turtle populations overall. And so they did do an analysis of the first 10 years of data, but they didn't find any real changes in the populations at any site.

SPITZER: Oh. Like, the box turtles are holding their own?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Yeah, except for 10 years is, like, nothing to a box turtle. I was talking with Gabrielle Graeter. She's a conservation biologist and herpetologist with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. And she told me that in the smaller box turtle studies that saw population declines over decades, it took more than 10 years to see those changes happen. And, you know, what's more, researchers don't know what kind of population declines happened in North Carolina before this study even began.

GABRIELLE GRAETER: One possibility is that we missed some of the declines that have happened in the last 50 years and not just in the last 10 years.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: She also told me that all of the study's sites are in relatively protected places.

SPITZER: So the turtles that they've been looking at for the last 10 years or so - this is, like, the best-case scenario.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Yeah, I think so. I mean, they did find that the density of box turtles seemed to be lower in the sites that were surrounded by more human and urban development. And so that sort of suggests that what happens outside of a protected area still affects the turtles inside. When I was at the arboretum, we were looking for a box turtle that had a radio transmitter stuck onto its back. And meanwhile, all around us, there were these campers - these little kids - doing their thing. And, you know, one of the study volunteers from the state parks is this guy, Brian Bockhahn. And he asked them, hey, like, do you guys like turtles?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: Yes.

BRIAN BOCKHAHN: On the count of three, say, I like turtles. One, two, three.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: I like turtles.

SPITZER: Indoctrinating future volunteers for the Box Turtle Connection study.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Absolutely. I mean, if they keep living in North Carolina, it's entirely possible. Maybe they'd even live long enough to see, you know, the final results in 2108.

SPITZER: Outstanding. Well, we here at SHORT WAVE are always down to talk turtles. Nell Greenfieldboyce, thank you so much for dropping by.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Thank you.

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SPITZER: This episode was produced by Rebecca Ramirez, edited by Gisele Grayson and fact-checked by Abe Levine. Our audio engineer was Maggie Luthar. I'm Gabriel Spitzer. Thanks, as always, for listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.

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