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Researchers Return Box Turtles To The Wild Via “Soft-Pen” Release

When turtles are taken illegally from the wild, they can’t readily be returned, because they usually don’t survive. Turtles generally have a known ran

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When turtles are taken illegally from the wild, they can’t readily be returned, because they usually don’t survive. Turtles generally have a known range and taking them out of that range and placing them elsewhere is not good for the turtle, often leading to deadly outcomes.

“The options are either to farm out the animals to individual people who are willing to keep them in captivity permanently or unfortunately, in some cases, just to euthanize them,” Tracey Tuberville, a senior research scientist at the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory (SREL) told the Post & Courier.


So, in an effort to find a solution that involves successfully returning confiscated eastern box turtles (Terrapene carolina carolina) to the wild, researchers with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, the United States Forest Service-Savannah River and SREL are experimenting with an approach that enables the box turtles to be released under strict supervision.


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Happy National Wildlife Day! • To celebrate, not only do I have an adorable video of my favorite box turtle foraging, but I have some box turtle facts for you. • Did you know… – Box turtles can live as long as humans. – Studies have shown that they recognize certain individuals or “neighbors” that share their same home range. – They use a variety of habitats, but can be often be found in suburban areas in people’s backyards – I actually found one eating worms on a paved road in my neighborhood! – They are threatened by roads and habitat loss. – Because of their beautiful patterns and coloration, they have recently become the target of the illegal pet trade and are being taken from the wild. • If you didn’t know it, I work at @ugasrel researching whether animals that have been confiscated from the illegal wildlife pet trade are suitable for release back into the wild. In order to answer this question, we are comparing their health and behavior to wild caught resident box turtles. • If you would like to help me answer these questions, please consider donating to my project. The link is in my bio! As always, thanks to everyone who has donated – you are awesome!

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The box turtles taking part in the experiment are among the 200 turtles seized in 2019. Tuberville said the researches are using the opportunity to study the habits of these reptiles and to learn as much as they can regarding their lifestyle.

So SREL, which will use its work with gopher tortoises (Gopherus polyphemus) as a model, penned the box turtles on a 2.5 acre area that enabled the turtles to roam the area but still remain in an enclosed space. This occurred from October 2019 to mid-May 2020. After those initial months, sections of the fencing that kept the 2.5 acre enclosure closed, were removed, enabling the turtles to come and as they pleased.

Eastern Box Turtle Care Sheet


Herping The Eastern Box Turtle

“I am monitoring their movements to see what habitats they are selecting and how far they are moving,” University of Georgia graduate student Emma Browning told the Post & Courier. “We’re even comparing them to some resident box turtles that were already in the area. I have 30 confiscated box turtles with transmitters and 10 resident box turtles with transmitters.”

“One thing I’ve learned is that you should never underestimate a turtle,” she said. “When I got into this, I was like, ‘Oh, they shouldn’t be very hard to track at all,’ but I’ve had quite a few that have crossed a good-sized river, and some also have actually crossed back over the river. I’ve had a couple move a mile in between my tracking days and one moved almost 2 miles.

“There are a lot of times when I don’t even see the animal,” she continued. “I just pinpoint it with my ear. A lot of them are just completely submerged in mud, which was something I didn’t really expect.”


Browning will monitor the turtles up until at least mid-November. They will go into brumation until the spring, and while the transmitters are expected to last that long, no plans have beset to monitor them after November.

These turtles are doing OK in the wild, though the conclusions of the study have not yet been finalized. There are encouraging signs.
“Some of them have moved into new areas and stayed around,” Browning said. ”I’m seeing that they’re eating well and doing well where they’re at. They’re also interacting with resident box turtles.”

If the outcomes are positive with this experiment, other turtle species might just benefit from such a supervised release program.

Eastern Box Turtle Information

Box turtles are widely captive-bred. There are 14 North American species and 12 Asian species. Some of the popular box turtles kept as pets include the eastern box turtle, three-toed box turtle, and the ornate box turtle. Always insist on captive-bred specimens as they will already be accustomed to life in captivity and are generally much healthier than wild-caught specimens.