eastern box turtle shell

Cold-blooded reptile smugglers feel the heat: Fish and Wildlife Service Law Enforcement Agents break up international animal trafficking ring

Nathaniel Swanson thought that he had it all figured out. His Everett, Washington reptile store provided the perfect cover. His contacts in China were trustworthy and reliable. His customers were discreet. He had a system, a ring of effective black market animal traffickers that brought him hundreds of thousands of dollars in illegal profit. But one moment of laziness on the part of his Hong Kong partners, one alert delivery service package handler, and timely intervention by the Fish and Wildlife Service’s special agents brought his ring down. His illegal wildlife trafficking activities cost him a year of time in prison and tens of thousands of dollars in fines and penalties.  

Wood turtles, threatened in the United States, were among the reptiles sent to China by Swanson’s smuggling ring. Credit: Colin Osborn/USFWS

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Eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina)

The Eastern box turtle is a subspecies within a group of hinge-shelled turtles, normally called box turtles. T. c. carolina is native to an eastern part of the United States. It is the only “land turtle” found in North Carolina, where it is the state reptile. Box turtles are slow crawlers, extremely long lived and slow to mature. In 2011 the IUCN downgraded its conservation status from Near Threatened to Vulnerable. When injured or damaged, the shell has the capacity to regenerate and reform. Granular tissue slowly forms and keratin slowly grows underneath the damaged area to replace damaged and missing scutes. Over time, the damaged area falls off, revealing the new keratin formed beneath it. The eating habits of eastern box turtles vary greatly due to individual taste, temperature, lighting, and their surrounding environment. There are a variety of foods which are universally accepted by eastern box turtles, which include earthworms, snails, slugs, grubs, beetles, caterpillars, grasses, fallen fruit, berries, mushrooms, flowers, bread, duck weed, and carrion.

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Beautiful Hard Bird hides in its rocky outer shell

Talon beak by John S. Quarterman