Eastern Box Turtle

Associated Smithsonian Expert: George R. Zug, Ph.D.

Zoologist George Zug takes a break from his fieldwork studying reptiles and amphibians while in Myanmar.

Courtesy of Jeremy Jacobs

Dr. George R. Zug is an emeritus research zoologist in the Department of Vertebrate Zoology at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and one of the world's foremost experts on reptiles and amphibians of the Pacific. His current research focuses on the biology and systematics of Asian and Pacific amphibians and reptiles. He first became interested in herpetology as an undergraduate when a professor asked him to join a herpetological expedition to Cuba [pre-Castro]. He majored in biology at Albright College and then went on to obtain a master's degree in zoology at the University of Florida and a doctorate degree in zoology at the University of Michigan. The thing he likes best about studying reptiles and amphibians is excitement of discovery, whether new species or aspects about a species' biology.

Meet our associated expert

This image was obtained from the Smithsonian Institution. The image or its contents may be protected by international copyright laws.

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Map turtle (Graptemys geographica) basking
Courtesy of Michael, via Flickr: EOL Images, CC-BY-NC

About Pond Turtles (Emydidae): Courtship

Like all turtles, Emydids reproduce sexually. Reproduction occurs seasonally, usually spring and summer, with males and females engaging in courtship followed by mating. Courtship is a prolonged affair, lasting as long as several hours. Emydid males often develop special features to engage with females. In some cooters, male toenails on the front feet grow extra long like curved toothpicks. The male uses them to stroke the female's head or just vibrates them alongside to titillate her. If she is receptive, she may stroke his legs. Once he is mounted in a mating position, he rakes the super-nails across her upper shell (carapace). During the breeding season, some Emydid males develop bright coloration on their necks, front limbs, or head. Whether these colors are used to display dominance to other males or to attract females is not known. Regardless, a male in breeding coloration is a showy sight.

Hatchling painted turtle (Chrysemys picta) showing spot where yolksac attached to belly
Courtesy of Azchary Cava, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, public domain

About Turtles (Testudines): Dispersal

Turtles do not parent their young. After the female lays eggs, she leaves. Each young turtle must break out of the egg using a caruncle, a sharp piece of keratin (fingernail material) on its jaw. Hatchlings may not get to feed right away, so they rely on take-out food. The yolk sac attached to their bellies, containing leftovers from the egg, sustains them. Still, when a hatchling leaves the nest, its odds of survival are poor. Its shell is still soft, making it edible to lots of predators, and outside conditions are tough. Sea turtles must reach the ocean without being attacked by crabs or shorebirds. Freshwater turtles must travel long distances, sometimes over steep terrain, dodging foxes and raccoons. Land turtles like tortoises risk getting dried out before they find water. Some hatchlings stay in the nest through an entire winter, living off the yolk sac and emerging when the weather warms.

Juvenile hawksbill sea turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) tangled in fishing net
Courtesy of Kyle Van Houtan, via iNaturalist, CC-BY

About Turtles (Testudines): Turtle Human Uses

The earliest archaeological evidence of humans eating turtles is at a site in northern Spain that is more than one million years old. In historic time, turtles remained popular as food. Huge lakes in the Central Valley of California were trawled by boats, who supplied the markets of San Francisco with thousands of turtles during the early 1900s. Australian aborigines today eat roasted turtle meat, using their shells as serving dishes. Amazonian tribes harvest river turtles for meat and fat. Farm-raised snapping turtles in the southeastern U.S. are the turtle in turtle soup. Asian cuisine particularly favors turtles. Massive turtle farming operations in China churn out soft-shell turtles for consumption, and turtle meat might grace the table at a traditional wedding. Besides their value as food, turtles are exploited heavily for the pet trade, and in Central America their eggs fetch a high price for their supposed aphrodisiac properties.

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