The turtle that started it all…

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Hello, old friend!

I grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, close enough to the city that the zoo and museums were within a short ride in the car or train, and yet far enough out that I remember finding at least one box turtle wandering the neighborhood of my youth. Of course, back then, every box turtle that was discovered instantly became someone’s pet, which might explain why I haven’t seen or heard about any box turtles in my old neighborhood for quite some time. Put bluntly, box turtles hardly ever fare well in captivity, usually because they require a diet that is far more diverse than most people imagine, and because they need space and light that few are able (or willing) to give. If these turtles are lucky enough to survive in a small enclosure, without proper lighting, then they can have lifespans that exceed those of most people, and surely there are cases where turtles have been left with parents once their children are grown. That’s probably how the first turtles ended up in the Riverside School courtyard more than thirty years ago, and how several other individuals have ended up in the population since. As for the upper limit of a box turtle lifespan, it is hard to find reliable information, although some sources say over a hundred years!

My fascination with turtles started even before I found a sickly, malnourished turtle in a friend’s yard back when I was in eighth grade, which I consequently nursed back to health and released. The first box turtle that I ever remember seeing was at the Abington Free Library, now called the Abington Township Public Library, which is currently celebrating its 50th year. I was only six or seven when I entered the children’s section of the library (which was always downstairs) and found the terrarium where “Eltrut” lived. Pictured above, Eltrut is an Eastern box turtle that was caught by a friend of the library many years back, and who lived in the children’s section of the library for at least thirty years. As a kid, the name was a mystery to me–almost as exotic as a three-legged turtle, since Eltrut is missing one of her front legs. It is with some embarrassment I’ll admit that many years of seeing that name passed before I finally figured out its significance.

Stopping by Briar Bush Nature Center on Monday, January 18, I was surprised to find Eltrut, still doing well, having moved out of the library in 2001. She now has more space to share with friends (a three-toed box turtle and Russian tortoise among them), and I’m sure she is receiving great care. Doing the math, she must be over 50 years old, if she was found near adult size, lived in the library for 30 years, and then at Briar Bush Nature Center for another 15. Eltrut is a true testament to how long a turtle might live if provided with everything that a turtle might need.

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Eltrut appearing next to her Russian tortoise companion.
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Here’s another shot of Eltrut and her tortoise companion; this angle provides a better glimpse of Eltrut’s missing leg. Image credit: Briar Bush Nature Center

As I reflect on what first spawned my interest in biology, and science in general, I think that Eltrut must have been one of my first inspirations, along with the opportunities I had to freely commune with nature. Many days were spent walking the grounds of Briar Bush Nature Center, as well as nearby Baederwood Park, where I often looked for salamanders, crayfish, and other “creepy-crawly” things.

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I’m happy to report that the salamanders are still there; this shot was taken in the spring of 2015.

Of course, when I was a kid, we were given a lot more freedom to explore–freedom that I don’t necessarily allow my own children. I’m not the first one to notice that a huge cultural shift has occurred, as books like Last Child in the Woods attest. At eight or nine or ten years old, I could wander around Baederwood Park for hours at a time, either by myself or with my friends. Nobody ever worried what might happen to me. We fished, we searched for turtles and salamanders, and we often got really dirty. Nowadays, children are rare in most natural settings, unless under strict supervision by an adult. I must admit that I’ve held to this paradigm with my own children, since I’ve pretty much always kept them in sight, and I’ve never let them wander around “in the woods.” Most other parents surely do the same, even though I consider those moments to be an essential part of my childhood. Are we widening the dissociation of today’s kids with nature? Probably. Is that a problem? Well, considering that we still depend on nature for food, water, and oxygen, I have to think that it is. Maybe this “Teacher Turtles” project will help reverse this trend, and reignite a connection to the ecosystems where we’re living. That’s my hope, at least. Perhaps a child’s contact with Poobles, or Pickle, or Mr. Putty, will engender that same connection with the natural world that Eltrut inspired in me, and surely others of my generation. And hey, we might as well learn some cutting-edge science in the process, since the study of genetics and molecular biology has advanced to levels that were completely unimaginable when I was a kid!

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Amazingly, Briar Bush also appears to have a breeding population of box turtles, as this baby can attest. Image credit: Briar Bush Nature Center

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