Eastern Box Turtle Shell Preservation

Though this post takes place mostly indoors, it began outdoors. Last…wow, October? Last October, while doing some tree surveys in Missouri, our crew came across a real rank smell. Real rank, like oh dear lord what could possibly smell so foul as that, even a dog would run away with its tail between its legs, gross.

Anyway, turns out it was an Eastern box turtle. Rotting away. No head, no legs or tail, just a goop of inner squishy bits in an advanced stage of decay. But–a fully intact shell, carapace & plastron both. Being entranced by chelonians, I needed it.

Luckily I was in the company of an understanding group. We double-bagged it (it still smelled horrible through the two bags) and I carried it around in my backpack for an entire day, stench following me. Since I was flying back to Illinois, my coworker Becky was kind enough to offer to bury it in her yard for a few months to let nature work its magic. Lo and behold, when it was expertly delivered to me, it hardly smelled at all (thanks saprotrophs and Becky!).

eastern box turtle shell rotten in bag

I rinsed it thoroughly, then took an old toothbrush to it, giving it a good scrub.

eastern box turtle shell cleaning toothbrush

Since the scutes (made of keratin, like fingernails) of a turtle shell have living tissue between them and the bone, they will fall off once that tissue decomposes. Luckily the shell wasn’t in the ground long enough for that to occur. The wet paper-looking stuff here is that tissue.

eastern box turtle shell scute tissue

All clean. Beautiful!

eastern box turtle shell cleaned

Googling around a bit, I saw lacquering the turtle as a method to prevent the scutes from falling off. So I let ‘er dry and lacquered it up. As you can see, it’s quite shiny, so I might go back with a matte spray to see if that improves the appearance. My experiment in turtle shell preservation.

eastern box turtle shell plastron inside

eastern box turtle shell plastron underside

eastern box turtle shell lacquered shell

I want to see how I can articulate the plastron somehow, to illustrate how these turtles can completely enclose themselves in their shells. Ideas welcomed!

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