Monday, November 3, 2014

Lead on O' Kinky Turtles


Our friend Jane Troup sent some pictures of a pair of three-toed box turtles. Terrapene carolina triunguis, mating.  These turtles were unusual in that they were in the "missionary" position and it was October 17th, well beyond what the book say is typical mating season.  I called for professional help, for me, not them.

First the issue of their mating season.  Amphibian and Reptiles of Missouri says that their breeding season is April through July, the time we usually find them crossing the road looking for love.  It qualifies this by saying "it may go on into the late summer."  Mid-October doesn't qualify as late summer to me but as slow as they are, maybe it does to turtles or maybe these hadn't read the book.

I contacted Jeff Briggler the MDC herpetologist who assured me that they occasionally would mate this late in the year.  I guess when you move that slow, it is hard to find mates and you have to strike while the iron is hot or at least a little warm.


Red eyed male- M. Bower
The MDC Field Guide describes the identifying marks of male and female box turtles.  "The plastron is yellow with brown smudges. Males have red eyes, orange on the head and forelimbs, a concave plastron, and a thick tail; females have yellow-brown eyes, less orange, a flat plastron, and a small tail."  If you look carefully at the plastron (shell bottom) of the inverted turtle, you can see it is concave.

As mischievous boys studying nature in our own fashion, we would turn turtles over to watch then struggle to upright themselves, usually without any success.  

It is important to find reputable online resources as at least one said that the male flips over for the third stage of mating.  The Nationalzoo.si.edu page gave a good clear description of how our T.c.carolina got in to this predicament.
"The courtship of both T.c.carolina and T.c.major is divided into three phases: a circling, biting, shoving phase; a preliminary mounting phase; and a copulatory phase.
The actual copulation is the same in all subspecies, with the male standing somewhat upright, leaning the concave part of his plastron against the back of the female's carapace. It is in this balanced position that the male fertilizes the female with his penis. Males sometimes fall backwards after copulation, and if they can't right themselves they die of starvation."
Normal mating position - note "fig leaf" for "PG" rating
All this brought back memories of a favorite family story we heard on NPR years ago.  The commentator described growing up thinking that the well-known hymn Lead On, O King Eternal was "Lead On, Oh Kinky Turtle," and it became our family mantra.  We adopted it, not a bad idea when nerves are tense and we made the wrong turn.  I suspect Jane's turtles were thinking that same thing as they "hung in there."

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