The visiting terrapin.

Micah, Milla, and Angie discovered a box tortoise in the shrubs today.

Max observed that the turtle’s radiating golden markings would “make a cool tiedye pattern”. And then John Wathen stepped forward with a smile and asked to hold the turtle. Turning it over in his hands, he observed its shell and a underbelly.

John Wathen said:

“That’s a nice-looking box turtle, but she looks like she’s had a rough time.”

Alina wondered:

“How can you tell it’s a girl, John?”

John replied:

“Well, the males don’t have this flared-out edge around the back end of the shell. But the females do- see that flare?”

Everyone nodded. And Milla joined the chorus of nods as well. Alina joked:

“Are you saying that female turtles wear skirts?”

John quickly replied:

“Now, I didn’t say anything like that. I’m just talking ’bout the edge.”

He smiled before changing the subject:

“Now you can tell she’s had a hard time because her shell is scuffed up and the front edges are battered. Can you see how part of the shell is peeled in these spots?”

The peeling portions of the carapace.

Everyone nodded again. Then we looked at the back end of the shell where two scuff marks were present. John speculated that she had rubbed against something hard- maybe she had been stuck under a fallen log? Our imaginations led us to all kinds of possibilities.

The scuff marks towards the rear. You can also see the flared edge here.

After taking a few photos, John had to leave, so he hopped into his truck- but not without showing us that Fancy Ballerina’s eyes were yellow (as we could see in the zoom from his camera). The box turtle, or box tortoise, is largely characterized by having a domed shell, which is hinged at the bottom, allowing the animal to close its shell tightly to escape predators.

Micah decided that her name could only be “Fancy Ballerina”. Angie and I laughed, and agreed. As the munchkins set up a “home” for the turtle, I went inside to learn more about her habitat and feeding habits. An image search indicated that Fancy Ballerina might be something something rather extraordinary and rare- an wetland-based species found in Florida and southeastern Georgia!

Like other box turtles, the Florida box turtle has a narrow and highly-domed shell with a hinged plastron that allows it to close its shell tightly. However, the Florida box turtle is quite different in appearance from the other subspecies of Terrapene carolina. Its carapace has a distinct pattern of bright radiating yellow stripes that make it easily identifiable. The coloring of the plastron can vary anywhere from solid yellow to solid black, with any number of variations in between. This turtle has very sharp claws as well as a sharp beak used for catching small insects and eating fruits, vegetables, and fungi. This subspecies can only be found in Florida, and is also protected in many other areas. (Source: Wikipedia)

I had expected to identify it as an Eastern box turtle, which is known to sometimes roam these parts, so identifying Fancy Ballerina as Terrapene carolina bauri raised many questions. How did she get here? What “wetland” was she using? Why didn’t she claw us? Why did John say she was probably 30 to 40 years old? Was she a pet who had escaped from a home in our neighborhood?

Since I couldn’t find a Florida box turtle on Alabama Herps website, I emailed a copy of the photo to them to share the strange and exciting news. In the meantime, the munchkins came rushing into the house bellowing and screaming:

“Mom! Mom! Fancy Ballerina escaped! We can’t find her! We turned around for five minutes and she was just GONE!”

I tried to hide my relief that a happy ending came to pass for our free turtle friend, though I can’t help wondering what the bigger picture might be to a Florida box turtle roaming around the state of Alabama.

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