Slow & Steady: Turtles in the Ozarks

Three-toed_Box_Turtleby Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz

When we first moved to the Ozarks it was a three-toed box turtle that inspired us to call our place Turtle Ridge Farm.  The first morning after moving in, we opened the front door to find a big box turtle sitting on the porch, smack dab in front of the door. The concrete porch isn’t all that high, but high enough to be difficult if you’re only 5” tall.

To many, the turtle signifies moving with intention and deliberation; slowing down and taking one’s time to act upon something. The turtle has also come to represent an old wisdom about how to get along in life. When the turtle beat the hare, it wasn’t because the turtle was fast; it was because it was determined to go the distance and smart enough to know that persistence pays off in the end. For Dean and I, the turtle embodies our desire to live a slower life and to escape the frenzied pace and hyper-desires of modern America.

This afternoon as I worked with intention on the slow food growing in the garden, I kept hearing an odd, hollow thunking sound. Several times I raised my head to look about, but couldn’t pinpoint its source. Eventually I couldn’t stand it any longer and got up off of my knees and looked around.  In the tall, verdantly green grass under the big hollow squirrel tree was a pair of three-toed box turtles tussling awkwardly with one another. I smiled. No explanation needed; it is spring after all.

3-ToedFootThe three-toed box turtle is so named for the three toes on its hind feet, though some turtles may actually have four. Three-toed Box Turtles (Terrapene carolina triunguis) are approximately 5” long and have a drab, olive-brown high-domed upper shell. The lower shell, or plastron, is often a deep, muddy yellow and has a distinct hinge which allows the turtle to pull upper third of the plastron tightly against the upper shell. When threatened, box turtles tuck their heads, tails and legs inside their strong shells for protection. It is their only defense. And though many box turtles never make it to maturity, some have been known to live for up to one hundred years.

Once box turtles emerge from hibernation, they almost immediately begin to search for new territory and mates, and will often wander far and wide to find them. Many types of turtles can be seen along the back roads and highways in the spring and early summer and many thousands are killed by cars every year. And while some fatalities are caused by callous people who thrill at the prospect of crushing a small life beneath their wheels, at least as many are saved by concerned motorists who stop in the middle of the road to rescue stranded and terrified turtles. The great risk that Ozarkers take in order to save these icons is both amazing and heartwarming.

Unfortunately, not all turtles get the same kind treatment as the sweet little box turtle. Snapping and soft shell turtles are hunted for their meat and many other aquatic turtles are killed by those who mistakenly believe that they eat large amounts of game fish in streams, lakes and ponds.  And some turtles, like the common snapping turtle, are killed because people are just plain afraid of them.


The Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina serpentina) is a big creature and to most eyes, none too pretty. An adult snapping turtle can weigh up to thirty five-pounds and reach more than 12” long. They live most of their lives quietly submerged in rivers, lakes and ponds, where they lay in wait for small fish and other prey to swim too close to their large, gaping mouths.

Most of the fear that big turtles excite in some people likely come from their enormous size and their defensive tactics while on land.  Snapping turtles are aquatic, except for one short period of time each year when the females haul themselves onto terra firma to lay their eggs in a shallow hole before returning to the protective cover of their watery home. In this respect they are much like sea turtles, with the difference being that snapping turtles prefer a nesting location far from the water’s edge. 800px-GreatBlueHeroneatingturtle08This tactic helps the female turtle protect her vulnerable eggs and young from riverbank predators such as herons, hawks, raccoon, mink and otter.

In the brief time the female is terrestrial, she is all business. Knowing that she is out of her element, the female will do whatever she has to do to defend herself during these dangerous forays. When confronted, a female snapper will hiss and make strange growling noises while raising her body high on all four legs. This tactic makes her appear imposing to predators. Of course, this is one of those rare moments when a snapping turtle will back up their bark with a bite.

One day, our dog Buck – ever leery of uninvited critters in the yard – took off after something we could not see.  Suddenly he stopped in his tracks and took a quick backwards jump.  Concerned over what had made our tenacious hound react this way, we headed over to the scene.  What we saw when we got there was a very large, spitting-mad female snapping turtle up on all fours rocking back and forth and hissing loudly.

2002 - 6 - Peace Valley - female snapper in yardAfter seeing her defiant display, it was easy to understand why people would fear such strength and size.  But for all the fearsomeness of her defensive stance, it is simply her motherly instinct that drives her.  As soon as she returns to her watery element, she will not need to use these tactics again until next year.  Buck was nothing, if not smart to stand down when faced with this tenacious mother turtle and he was more than happy to turn the situation over to us and even gladder to let this behemoth go on her way.

We sometimes forget how lucky we are to live in a place with so many turtle species.  And like turtle in his race with the hare,  we too must be deliberate and persistent if we are to ensure the protection and enhancement of the  lakes, rivers, streams, forestlands, hay fields and backyard habitats so vital to the turtle’s survival long into the future.

A Word About Protecting and Conserving Missouri’s Turtles from the Missouri Department of Conservation

Although turtles have been around for millions of years, they are losing ground to farms, cities and mines, which have replaced their habitat–swamps, marshes and forests. Thoughtless poaching and careless driving adds more pressure to these ancient, odd-looking and important creatures.

Help Turtles Thrive in Our State

  • Don’t collect turtles for pets. Wild animals deserve a natural life, and keeping them as pets can distress them to death.
  • Don’t shoot turtles for “fun.” It’s illegal, and it pressures an already stressed group of animals.
  • Report turtle poachers to Operation Game Thief.
  • Be careful when you drive, especially in spring and summer when turtles are mating, nesting and dispersing.
  • Create habitat areas around your home or farm. These include wooded and marshy areas.  Regulations and Facts

Regulations and Facts

  • Shooting turtles is prohibited.
  • Turtles are no threat to game fish.
  • Missouri has 17 kinds of turtles; all but three are protected.
  • Turtles are beneficial scavengers; they eat water plants, dead animals, snails, aquatic insects and crayfish.
  • Swimmers should not fear turtles; they won’t bite unless picked up.

Another good one from the Show Me Oz archives. © 2011 Jill Henderson
Feel free to share with a link back to the original article.

AJOS-214x32813_thumb.jpgA Journey of Seasons

Filled to the brim with colorful stories, wild walks, botanical musings, and a just a pinch of “hillbilly” humor A personal and inspiring tale of homesteading in the Ozark backwoods by noted author, naturalist and plant organic gardener, Jill Henderson.

Available in the Show Me Oz Bookstore
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Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz . Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore.  Jill is a contributing author for Acres USA and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac and her work has appeared in The Permaculture Activist and The Essential Herbal.

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