Eye of the Turtle

Adult male three-toed box turtle (Terrapene carolina triunguis).

Is there anything more lovable than the humble turtle?  As old as the dinosaurs, they stumbled onto a body plan that works and promptly dropped out of the evolutionary arms race.  Slow, plodding, and seemingly oblivious, they steadfastly cling to their quite, unhurried lives.  As the rest of the earth’s diversity of life races on, turtles go about their business much as they have done for more than 200 million years now.  They are survivors.

My friend Rich and I encountered this three-toed box turtle (Terrapene carolina triunguis) during our hike of the lower North Fork Section of the Ozark Trail in extreme southern Missouri.  Three-toed box turtles are one of four U.S. subspecies of the eastern box turtle, occupying the area west of the Mississippi River from Missouri and Kansas south to Texas and distinguished by their largely unpatterned shell and – yes, three toes on the hind legs rather than four.  I walked right by this guy the first time without noticing him, and only when I turned around to go back and look at something else did I see him sitting there – neck fully extended.  Box turtles exhibit considerable variability in color and patterns on the head and neck, and this particular individual is one of the more conspicuously colored that I’ve seen.

And the eye – as red an eye as I’ve ever seen!  Almost surely a male, as females may have some red in the eye but rarely to such a spectacular degree.  Also likely full-grown based on his rather large size, though probably not too advanced in age yet since the growth rings were still easily visible (in older turtles the growth rings gradually wear smooth).  I estimated it at about 12 years based on ring counts – still a far cry from the 30-50 years that are not uncommonly documented.  He kept a watchful eye on me as I studied him, and I wondered about what his future held.  As an adult, he has settled into a small home range from which he rarely ventures – likely visible to me in its entirety from where I stood.  For the next several decades, he will amble across this single hillside on an endless quest for earthworms, strawberries, and mushrooms.  Save for a possible run-in or two with a destined-to-be-frustrated coyote, fox, or racoon, it will be a largely uneventful life.  He is a survivor.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010

About Ted C. MacRae

Ted C. MacRae is a research entomologist by vocation and beetle taxonomist by avocation. Areas of expertise in the latter include worldwide jewel beetles (Buprestidae) and North American longhorned beetles (Cerambycidae). More recent work has focused on North American tiger beetles (Cicindelidae) and their distribution, ecology, and conservation.
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60 Responses to Eye of the Turtle

  1. Ouch! That conjunctivitis looks bad … 😉

  2. Nice post, Ted. Your narrative ability makes me look like a slouch.

    How well documented is it that only males have red eyes? I ask because I’ve encountered a female in the act of laying eggs with red eyes. Ever since then, I’ve wondered if that’s just misinformation that somehow continues to be propagated. I have pictures from that encounter, so I’ll take another look to see just how much red.

    • Most sources add the caveat “usually,” suggesting that exceptions do occur. Even among males it is not universal – Ernst & Lovich (2009, Turtles of the United States and Canada) mention that usually about 80% of males have the iris red, but that this isn’t true for all populations. Since males are also distinguished by the more concave plastron and enlarged first toe on hindfoot, it would seem that correlations between eye color and sex would be rather straightforward.

      And thanks for the nice remark!

      • Do you happen to know if this correlation is true of tortises as well? (To my [ultra-amateur] understanding, it should, since as far as I can tell the only big difference between turtles and tortoises is that turtles go in water, while tortoises generally don’t.) I’m interested because I have a (male) pet tortoise whose eyes are pretty black.

        Very nice blog, by the way!

  3. The close up of that eye makes him look quite fierce! He seems to be in hot pursuit of an earthworm.

  4. dang says:

    As Troy so aptly expressed, love your narratives. Such a plus to your excellent shots. Thanks again for you post, makes me look forward to next Spring so I can get back outside.

  5. Rebecca says:

    Very cool! I am in charge of the care of three box turtles (plus one terrapin) where I work, and it’s definitely given me a soft spot for these critters. Two of ours are female and one a male, and the male definitely has redder eyes than the girls.

    • I keep thinking about bringing one home for the girls to take care of, but I haven’t yet become comfortable that we’d do a good job. For now we’re practicing with a tiger salamander (and doing very well at it), plus a constant and varied assortment of bugs and other small critters.

      • Rebecca says:

        Yeah, one of ours used to be the pet of someone who didn’t know how to take care of him properly and didn’t provide protein in his diet or the right kind of light. As a result his shell is severely deformed. It’s definitely important to know what you’re doing.

        • sally says:

          They aren’t terribly hard as pets (at least when older; it’s those formative years…), but I think I saw research that said taking a single adult turtle out of the wild would have a terrible impact on local populations, probably because of the longevity, difficulty of survival the first year or two, etc. He’ll be fine, I suspect, as long as he doesn’t try crossing a road!

          The ones I met had been brought to us (in Colo) from MO by someone who probably shouldn’t have. When I went to get them, he had thrown them in a rainbarrel full of water!! Good thing I got there in time…

          Nice shot and story, Ted…

          • Thanks, Sally!

            Amazing the misconceptions some people have. I should talk of course – I remember as a kid catching frogs and putting them in a jar of water with no rocks or anything to climb up on. But then, I was, afterall, only 10 years old!

      • sally says:

        Tiger salamanders, on the other hand, are pretty easy to keep. You might like my essay on them, but I’m sure it has little you don’t already know. Because they can live 20 years, they’re a long commitment!

        • That’s a great post – lots of useful information. I do feel a little bad about taking one from the wild, but it was so pitiful wandering through the parking lot all dry and covered with dirt. We’ve had it three months now and my daughters have fed it faithfully everyday – they love having it take crickets right from their hand! It really is an engaging little pet and causes a lot of conversation when company comes over. Here are some pictures of it in case you missed it: First tiger of the trip…

  6. Anonymous says:

    Wonderful post, I love turtles! I have only ever seen two box turtles in the wild, once was just this past October at Shaw NR. I’ve been lucky enough to help one of our local professor with his turtle surveys of the turtles living on the local campus. Next year is being declared The Year Of the Turtle. visit http://www.yearoftheturtle.org
    With over 40% of the turtles in the world listed as threatened or endangered I think it is about time that Turtles got their day.

    • They’re quite common in the southern part of Missouri, so I run into them often enough. Thanks for the link to Year of the Turtle – yep, they’re getting a raw deal these days, so any help we can give them is the least we can do.

  7. I had no idea about the eye color/gender detection model…interesting!

    Great post –

  8. Such neat creatures … thanks for posting!

  9. Lakia Gordon says:

    Thanks for the post! I like turtles. But one thing that makes me soooo sad, is to see those things walking across the highway!! I often see them on the side of the highway 😦

  10. im not gonna lie, the closeup of the eye kind of creeps me out.

  11. What an amazing animal. Quite beautiful in all its red eye glory…lol.

  12. The red eye is piecingly intense–especially compared to his lifestyle that is a slow amble toward survival. Fascinating!
    Congrats on being freshly pressed!

    Happy Holidays from Haiti,

  13. psychodoodle says:

    wow… very nicely written…. was just going to take a glance through the post because i never thought the turtle was an interesting subject but ended up reading the whole thing… beautifully written…..

  14. I always thought red was just wrong for an eye color, but I keep it to myself since I got into that fight with the loon.

  15. harkheindzel says:

    There’s nothing as beautiful as nature…

  16. Anya says:

    Your narrative of the contemplative lifestyle of the turtle makes me want to draw paralells with human survival and say something insightful about Life. The turtle’s encounter with you was probably the most exciting event in his life, and I wonder if we humans couldn’t learn more from these creatures: find something that works, and stick with it. As it stands, we’re doing quite the opposite. And with all of this innovation, we may well head into extinction in the near future (Earth-history-wise 🙂 )

  17. CrystalSpins says:

    It’s the eye of the turtle its the will to survive…
    it’s ancient and has a shell to fend of rivals…

    Hummm…that’s all I have for now.


  18. auntbethany says:

    Amazing photography, and a very intricate post to go along with it…definitely deserving of a FP status! Kudos!

  19. What a handsome devil!

  20. humanitarikim says:

    Yes, turtles can be ferocious. I have a Red Slider named Miko, so I know this first finger…. er, hand.

  21. enjoibeing says:

    this turtle looks like an evil ninja turtle waiting to be evolved hah. pretty cool though

  22. sandra says:

    Insightful…. thanks!!!

  23. evilcyber says:

    There is only really one downside to turtles: cuddling them is difficult 😉


  24. ohkamisvoice says:

    Two thumbs up for turtle…

    Don’t stop Howling…
    OhKami’s Voice

  25. irsolo says:


  26. Margaret says:

    Thanks for the lovely post. I look forward to reading more of your blog! My triunguis is incredibly observant and keeps as close an eye on me as I do on him. His eyes are more orange than red–due, I’m sure, to natural variation as well as a less wild diet.

  27. He has a wonderful face, a distinguished profile, and yes, a fantastically red eye – glad you didn’t miss him – and congrats on the feature!

  28. While in some parts in India consider Turtles to be Lucky.Most of them consider it an unlucky animal “to pet at home” as it brings misfortune to the house.The person who pets the animal has to follow certain religious principles.It is seen in temples in India where it is worshiped.

  29. Terri says:

    I love turtles. Enough so that apparently I tried to eat the family pets when I was a toddler. My sister came in and found me gnawing on one, which had retracted into its shell. Oops. 🙂

  30. Wow – thank you everyone for your nice comments. All this attention is an unexpected (and pleasant) surprise!

  31. whuffie says:

    What a great article. It was informative (I learned a few things about the box turtle I didn’t know) but also interesting / entertaining. I have a couple of ball pythons and a bearded dragon bred in captivity for pets. I did my homework on both before making a purchase, to be sure I could provide ample space, proper diet, heating, temps, expected longevity, found a vet, found a reputable breeder to be sure they weren’t removed from the wild, etc.

    I’m always glad to see people sharing experiences about reptiles – who and what they really are – to help dispel some of the misconceptions people have about “ew nasty, it has scales!”

    The turtles I’ve been around have always been gentle and placid. As a kid I scooped a land going variety up right out of the wild. I probably nearly gave the poor thing a coronary, but it battened down the hatches and hid. I’m guessing it was some species of box turtle due to my area, although I have no idea which. It didn’t bite or claw, even though it was within its rights to. I put it back down shortly thereafter and let it go, no doubt to its relief.

    Thanks for sharing with us and the ‘net. 🙂

  32. jollof says:

    That turtle looks like its been watching too much TV!

  33. Interesting …. amazing picture too !

  34. kayoyama says:

    wow… great picture.. she/he looks so old. we have also have a small turtle.. about 3 inches.. were going to release it in the sea once its fully recovered..

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