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Eastern Box Turtles Come to Eco-Brooklyn

If you were at the Eco Brooklyn Green Show House yesterday you would have seen a delivery man running briskly down the street with a white box in hand. On the box in big red letters were written “Attention: Non-harmful reptiles inside”.

Inside the box were two (one male and one female) Eastern Box Turtles and their arrival marked the end of many months of searching.

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The white shipping box that the turtles made their journey in.

A while back we decided that native turtles would be a valuable addition to the green roof on top of the Green Show House. As ecological landscapers we don’t stop at native plants and organic compost. Our landscaping services attempt to rebuild natural ecosystems in harmony with the needs of humans. This involves creating water habitats and including larger native animals.

I began researching everything about the turtles: what their diet is, where they live, how they mate, and their means of living.Eastern Box Turtles seemed to be a lot more complicated than I first thought. The turtles  are native to the Eastern United States. They live as far north as Maine and Michigan, and as far south as Florida and Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. Throughout their domain their habitats range in elevation as well. They are found from places below sea level and up to 6,000 feet in southern parts of their range.

The turtles thrive in deciduous and mixed forests, a type of ecosystem that is very common along the East Coast. Within these biomes, the turtles can most often be found in open grasslands, pastures, under fallen logs, on moist ground, moist leaves, or wet dirt. Eastern Box Turtles are tortoises, therefore they spend most of their time on land, but sometimes they can be found in shallow streams, ponds, or puddles.
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Ruby going for a casual swim in the water pool that we built her.

An interesting dynamic of the Eastern Box Turtle is that they can practically eat anything. There are a variety of foods that are universally accepted by the turtles, which include earthworms, snails, slugs, beetles, caterpillars, grasses, fruit, berries, mushrooms, flowers, and general plant matter.

After some research, we decided that out of the several native turtles the Eastern Box Turtle would be the best fit for the Show House terrain. I started my search online through a website called KingSnake which is a portal to various independent sellers and stores that sell reptiles all around the United States.

I found a dealer from Las Vegas called “Exotic Pets” who had two beautiful ones of breeding age – around 7-8 years. We made the order late in the afternoon and they arrived in Brooklyn early the next morning less than 16 hours later! Door to door. That is almost as fast as it would take a human to go from Las Vagas to New York, let alone some turtles!

Once the order was in place the interns went up to the green roof to begin preparation for our reptilian friends. We started by digging a hole in the soil of the green roof to place a copper cistern for the turtles to bathe in. We dug using large kitchen spoons to avoid any damage to the roof membrane, a tedious process but it was well worth it.

We also built an embankment with deep soil and a butterfly bush. This gives the turtles an area to burrow (which they do for large parts of the day) and shade.

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The embankment was created by the bee hive on the corner of the green roof. This seems to be the turtles favorite spot.

Eco-Brooklyn attempts to create homes that lessen the barrier between “nature” and “human”; giving occupants a deep interaction with nature so that there can be more sense of harmony and connection with the world. The main example we have of this work is our Green Show House which doubles as a house and an office.

One of the main features on the Green Show House is the green roof that was carefully construction to re-create a robust ecosystem. The green roof serves as a living example of the potential for a flourishing ecosystem within the confines of a New York City roof.

The green roof is equipped with many features that will allow the turtles to flourish such as great sun exposure, plants and shrubs that
provide shade, water features, and hiding places for the turtles. Two Eastern Box Turtles are a vital addition to our green roof because they provide invaluable ecological and educational benefits.
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Ruby enjoying her first few moments of freedom on the green roof.

The Eastern Box Turtle’s habitat is being threatened on many levels and box turtle populations are declining with many individual populations nearing extinction. The main problem they face is habitat destruction and fragmentation. Fragmentation refers to the separation of habitats by humans, such as the building of a highway through a forest could separate two turtle populations. This also means there is the potential to wander out of their habitat into human territory, where they are very vulnerable to accidental death by humans, especially as roadkill.

Our hope is that we can house these two turtles on the green roof so that they will eventually reproduce.  On special occasions we will give them to other environmental organizations who have safe, contained outdoor habitats help reintroduce them back into the urban environment in a controlled way.

After our two turtles had arrived we discovered they had been captured from South Carolina and brought to the breeder in Las Vegas. This was a mistake on our part since it encourages wild catching, which further dwindles the wild populations.

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Close up of the beautiful Eastern Box Turtle Ruby.

It is also very important to tightly control interaction between captive and wild animals since they can transmit deadly diseases. It is possible to breed animals in captivity for repopulation of wild habitats but the process needs to be monitored closely to avoid spreading disease or disrupting native ecosystems.

The breeder, who was very helpful and clearly cared about his animals, assures us that he only breeds them in captivity now. Nonetheless, we feel the animal trade is no different than the slave trade: selling of life for ownership. Because of this, buying these box turtles was a necessary evil for us.

The turtles arrived in a small cardboard box. Inside was some Styrofoam insulation and crumpled newspaper. We removed the crumpled newspapers within the box to find a canvas bag tied with string. I cut the bag open and saw that there were two beautiful turtles in it. They popped out of their shells taking in their new surroundings.

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Me eagerly and carefully cutting open the bag with the turtles inside it.

Turtles in hand, the group scurried up to the roof to place them in their new habitat. We placed the turtles down and watched them nervously explore their new environment. They seemed to be a combination of excited and a little stir crazy from the shipment. After observing them for half an hour we retreated downstairs to do out work for the day; the experiment had begun.

Eco-Brooklyn is constantly trying to push the envelope in radical sustainability and green building and introducing two large reptiles in a green roof environment is something that we have never seen done before. We are starting with the roof because it is completely enclosed. If they thrive up there we will seal off  the back garden (turtles are great diggers) and transfer their offspring down there.

It will be interesting to see how turtles react in an environment such as this. Ecologically, the turtles provide another component of the ecosystem, allowing for greater biological and ecological diversity. They have already begun to dig up the soil in search of worms, thus opening up spaces for weaker plants to grow as well as aerating the soil.

Educationally, we will be able to observe and disseminate information about how turtles interact with their environment in such a unique and interesting setting. We are excited to have our new housemates. They have been christened by Gennaro Brooks-Church’s four year old son with the names “Max” and “Ruby”.

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