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!

Hinged Companions

For the next few weeks, I will be conducting tree surveys in Missouri – tramping about through the woods and sleeping in what will probably end up being a combination of rustic cabins and motels. I’m currently drafting this blog post while sitting near my very warm wood-burning stove in a small cabin a good twenty minute drive straight into the woods from the closest highway.

Lake of the Ozarks hillside woods
The first site we surveyed is a hilly, primarily dry-mesic to dry chert woodland with upland flatwoods dominated by white, post, and black oaks. On the second day of surveying, we happily encountered two Eastern box turtles, and a third little fellow the third day. Two were immediately frightened and snapped their hinged shells quickly, refusing to let us take a peek, while the other, a smaller, more docile male, distinguished by his red eyes (females’ eyes are yellow to brown) allowed me to take a few glamor shots.

Eastern box turtle shell Missouri Eastern box turtle shell Missouri
Eastern box turtle shell hinged Missouri

male Eastern box turtle Missouri

male Eastern box turtle Missouri

It was my first experience seeing a box turtle in his/her natural environment. The only other time I have known a box turtle scuttling about outside was at the Chicago Botanic Garden. He was likely someone’s pet and had been dropped off into “nature,” unwanted by his former owner (the CBG ensured he was delivered safely to a herp rescue organization).

Some of the hills we’ve traversed are quite steep with loose cobble and small boulders. I can’t help but imagine some little turtles might lose their three-toed footing and bounce down the rocky slope; at the least they’d be quite protected by their glorious hinging shells.