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Woman holding binoculars Join today and get outside at one of our 60+ wildlife sanctuaries.
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Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, Wellfleet

Routine Eastern Box Turtle Monitoring Saves an Old Friend

November 20, 2023

Stories of rescued cold-stunned sea turtles typically steal the show this time of year, but the discovery of an injured Eastern Box Turtle during a routine field study last month captured attention and hearts.

Why We Study Eastern Box Turtles

Since early 1980’s, Wellfleet Bay’s resident population of Eastern Box Turtles have been studied using radio telemetry and mark-and-recapture methods. The goals of this long-standing project, started by Sanctuary Director Emeritus Bob Prescott and now conducted by volunteer Tim O’Brien, are to determine the turtles’ survivorship, growth rates, habitat use, and patterns of movement across the sanctuary. During routine field checks, turtles that are found are then weighed and measured, their general health is assessed, and released.

Box turtle ready for examination
© Tim O’Brien

The Adventures of Turtle #63

Each box turtle has an individual file in our robust database. Re-sightings of turtles vary. Sometimes multiple years pass before an individual box turtle is encountered, while others are seen with wonderful regularity. Turtle #63, an older female first discovered in 1988, is one of those wonderful well-known friends with a file full of recorded encounters.

As Tim described in an August 2023 field report: “I've followed this old gal for years. She circumnavigates [the field] every year with amazing predictability. In mid-summer, she always stops between the same two bird houses…overlooking the salt marsh. I found her in that exact spot today, a bit later in the season than usual. She was sitting amongst the fallen beach plums, no doubt eating her fill. Cool.”

Box Turtle 63 in good health in August
© Tim O’Brien

The data from this 40-year project reveals incredibly rich and important detail about box turtle biology and life history. And it is strictly a monitoring project. We don’t typically intervene with a turtle’s activities unless a situation is life threatening—which was the case for Turtle #63 in mid-October.

Box Turtle 63, unable to retract into her shell
© Tim O’Brien

Just two months after she was seen healthy in August, Turtle #63 was spotted again but this time Tim noticed injuries to her rear legs that looked like bite wounds, likely from an interaction with a predator. The wounds were infected; her legs had swollen to a point where she could not withdraw them into her shell, leaving her at risk.

Recognizing the severity of the situation, Tim immediately transported her to the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University in Grafton for treatment. As of this writing, she is doing much better in the skilled hands of our wonderful partners at Tufts.

Box Turtle 63's rear legs, swollen and unable to retract into her shell
© Tim O’Brien

While most box turtles will spend the winter burrowed several inches deep under pine needles in the woods, Turtle #63 will spend the winter in recovery at Tufts, and we hope to release her back onto the sanctuary property in the spring. No doubt she’ll have a lot to tell us when she returns!

Support Our Work

Wellfleet Bay relies on the generosity of its supporters to continue our turtle monitoring work on Cape Cod.