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The Box Turtles Project

IntroductionLearning ObjectivesParticipant Safety in the FieldAnimal Handling Guidelines & Animal CareProject Materials and ProceduresThe Box Turtle CurriculumLocating And Capturing Box TurtlesRadio Tracking Box TurtlesData CollectionData Reporting and Access: The HERP Project, The Carolina Herp Atlas & The Box Turtle ConnectionTeaching Points: Importance of project and threats to environmentMark-RecaptureUseful Resources: Links and More InformationEspecially for TeachersHERP Data SheetFunding AcknowledgementTranscripts of VideosDownload the Box Turtle Curriculum


box-turtle-projectWritten by:

Ann Berry Somers, Catherine Matthews, and Lacey Huffling

Reviewers: Amy Germuth, Douglas Lawton, and Lynn Sametz

Before starting a project similar to the one described in this curriculum, contact your state wildlife resources commission or state division of fish and game to see what permits you need to work with animals.

The following curriculum was developed by The HERP Project to engage participants with the joy and wonder of nature and science through the study of box turtles. The curriculum was developed over several years of working with high school students in our Herpetological Research Experience (HRE) residential program. Feel free to modify this curriculum to fit your educational program.

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Learning Objectives

After completing this project, participants will be able to:

  1. List characteristics of box turtles (and other reptiles).
  2. Distinguish box turtles from semi-aquatic turtles.
  3. Describe the general natural history of Eastern Box Turtles (Terrapene carolina carolina) (e.g. age to maturity, food preferences, home ranges, predators, sex determination, etc.).
  4. Measure and mark box turtles according to the protocol established in The Box Turtle Connection (Somers and Matthews 2006) and enter data in a database.
Participant Safety in the Field

While doing fieldwork, participants may encounter insects and other arthropods including chiggers, yellow jackets, ticks and spiders. Tips for safety in the field include:

  • Use insect repellant (but not on your hands if you plan to collect herps).
  • Wear a hat and long pants.
  • Pull socks over the bottoms of your pants legs to prevent ticks, chiggers, and spiders from crawling up inside pants.
  • Wear sunscreen.
  • Always carry water.
  • Wear sturdy boots rather than flip-flops or sandals.

If you are in an area where you may encounter snakes, know that feet and ankles are the most common bite locations, followed by hands. Wear protective footwear and long pants or gaiters and look where you place your hands and feet.  Always hike with a partner and let someone else know your itinerary.

Animal Handling Guidelines & Animal Care

Handling live animals can be exciting but precautions should be taken to ensure the safety of the animals as well as the participants.

  1. Always wash hands before, after and between handling animals.
  2. Never taunt an animal or put fingers near its mouth.
  3. Hold box turtles firmly with two hands. Collect data holding the turtle near the ground or have many hands cupped under the animal so that should it wiggle out of your hands it doesn’t have far to fall.
Project Materials and Procedures

Materials needed:

  • Shells of dead box turtles and various semi-aquatic turtles
  • Calipers (6” or greater)
  • Digital scale or spring scale such as Pesolas®
  • Triangular File
  • Data sheet (see Appendix)
  • GPS (available on smartphones)
The Box Turtle Curriculum

Box turtles are a group of closely related turtles found in central and eastern North America. All but one of the box turtles are terrestrial.  Scientists suspect that their populations are declining due to habitat fragmentation and destruction, disease, and mortality from lawn mowers, tractors, bulldozers and car strikes on roads.  Many people find box turtles engaging and charismatic and because of this, they are particularly good subjects for connecting students to nature and interesting them in science.

In our program, participants are introduced to the biology of the turtles as well as to the research protocol of The Box Turtle Connection (BTC), our long term mark/recapture box turtle study in North Carolina.  The BTC is designed to follow temporal trends in population size and structure (sex, age class) as well as the health and condition of individual box turtles from numerous sites across North Carolina.  The data we gather are important to help scientists determine whether or not box turtles need special conservation measures in order to survive and thrive in their natural habitat. Our box turtle studies are enhanced by our use of Boykin Spaniel dogs to locate and retrieve box turtles and our use of radio-tracking to determine activity ranges for male and female box turtles. Additional information about the box turtle curriculum of The HERP Project can be seen in the following video produced by UNC-TV:

Central to the success of our program is the use of the inquiry method of learning.  Our programs begin with a discussion (rather than presentations where participants are expected to sit quietly and listen). Central to a successful discussion is having participants answer questions, rightly or wrongly.  Don’t worry, there will be time to correct misconceptions.  Questions like the following are helpful in engaging the participants in a meaningful way: “What makes a box turtle special?” or, “What makes a box turtle a box turtle?” or, “How would you describe a box turtle to someone who has never seen one?” or “Can a turtle crawl out of its shell?”  What are the names of the scutes (scales) on a turtle’s shell?  Watch the video linked here for an example of a mix between the presentation style and inquiry style of interacting with students.  Our methodology has shifted away from the presentation style and towards the inquiry style as described below, which we strongly promote.

Instead of project leaders starting out a session by holding a shell and naming the parts, a more effective method would be to pass around shells of the box turtles of different species such as semi-aquatic turtles so the participants can examine them in-hand prior to the discussion. When questions are presented, everyone is instructed to listen to the responses of others without interrupting. Writing responses on a white board is helpful if one is available; if not, repeat the participants’ answers to validate the response.  The following questions can be asked but be sure and withhold the clarification, a.k.a the right answer, (in italics following the questions below) until the participants are allowed to answer.

  • “What is a turtle shell?” Modified ribs and vertebrae that serve as protection against predators. Turtles are the only vertebrates with shoulders and hips inside their rib cage, which is their shell! The plates on the bony part of the shell are modified scales called scutes.

The fused ribs and bones of the vertebral column (vertebra) make up the carapace shown here. A turtle can no more walk out of its shell than you can walk away from your backbone.




The thin plates covering the bony shell are called scutes and readily fall off after the turtle dies.


  • “What are the parts of a turtle shell called?” The top shell is the carapace and the bottom shell is the plastron. The link between the two shells (carapace and plastron) is called the bridge. The hinge is the part of the plastron that connects the front part (anterior) with the back part (posterior) of the plastron and allows the plastron parts to move independently.
  • Who knows what the word “marginal” means? Ok, now that you know the definition of the word marginal, which of the scutes do you think would be called the marginal scutes?  Marginals are the scutes around the edge of the carapace. What about the vertebral scutes? Vertebral scutes are down the middle of the back shell (carapace).
Left: A hatchling semi-aquatic turtle. The bridge (circled) connects the carapace and the plastron and is located between the front and back legs. The bridge is present in box turtles (right), but not as easy to see. The carapace of a box turtle is shaped like an old style German army helmet or the letter “C”.

Left: A hatchling semi-aquatic turtle. The bridge (circled) connects the carapace and the plastron and is located between the front and back legs. The bridge is present in box turtles (right), but not as easy to see. The carapace of a box turtle is shaped like an old style German army helmet or the letter “C”.

The plastron of a box turtle. Note the paper indicates the marking code for the box turtle (BIN), the date of capture and the official code of the site, in this case CR for Chestnut Ridge.

The plastron of a box turtle. Note the paper indicates the marking code for the box turtle (BIN), the date of capture and the official code of the site, in this case CR for Chestnut Ridge.

  • “Where do box turtles live?” They are found in a variety of habitats from forests to wooded swamps to dry, grassy fields. The coloration on their shells provides great camouflage in all of their habitats. Box turtles need different types of areas to thrive and will move among them throughout the year as food or other resources become available. For example, they will be found near fruiting plants such as blackberry bushes while they are bearing fruit and will move to wet areas during dry spells. Certain types of palatable mushrooms may only grow in one part of the forest at certain times of the year, making this area of the forest temporarily attractive for the turtles.  Box turtles need moisture during overwintering and hot mid-summer spells, so they may frequently travel to areas with hydric (wet) soils, streams, ponds, ditches, or springs with which they are familiar.
  • “What do box turtles eat?” A variety of foods, including worms, slugs, berries, mushrooms, and garden tomatoes. You may also find this video useful:

A Video About What Box Turtles Eat

Next, participants are given a variety of turtle shells and asked to sort the shells based on their shapes and discuss the relative merits of each shape for terrestrial life, like box turtles, or semi-aquatic life, like sliders or painted turtles.  While looking at all the shells the question is asked, “What makes a box turtle’s shell special?” The shape of the shell is generally oval and the turtle can shut itself inside to protect itself from predators. The central hinge allows the shell to completely close and the box turtle can pull its head, legs and tail fully into the shell. You may ask participants to create a dichotomous key using either real shells or, if you don’t have access to real shells, shell models made of clay or model magic. You can purchase painted turtle and snapping turtles shells online.

Locating And Capturing Box Turtles

Superbly camouflaged, box turtles are very hard to find. Many of our turtles are found incidentally as we move about our sites doing other things such as walking trails or driving.  Deliberately driving roads in search of reptiles and amphibians is called “road cruising” and at times this can be a very successful method of locating turtles.  Late spring and summer rains stimulate movement so your chances of finding them on such days is increased.  Another method is to conduct a census with a group of 4-12 people in a defined area, say one hectare, anytime between the hours of 10 am and 4 pm. The protocol is described in How to Conduct a Box Turtle Census, a chapter in The Box Turtle Connection book, available free online at

Occasionally we use highly trained turtle-dogs (Boykin Spaniels) help us locate box turtles in our study sites. John Rucker, a naturalist, outdoorsman, and a former middle school teacher has trained his Boykin Spaniel dogs to find and gently retrieve box turtles on command (to see an Animal Planet video about the breed which features John’s dogs click here).   John and his dogs have made important contributions to research across the ranges of the various species of box turtles.

A Boykin Spaniel with a box turtle in its mouth.

A Boykin Spaniel with a box turtle in its mouth.

Radio Tracking Box Turtles

Box turtles are hard to find because they are so well camouflaged. We attach transmitters to a few turtles so that we can easily locate them and track their movements. Radio tracking is an excellent method for learning about turtles and with practice it becomes easier, though at first it can be a bit frustrating.  Below is a brief introduction to radio tracking turtles.  For a detailed explanation and practice exercises go to Practical Radio Tracking by Brian Cresswell.

A transmitter is glued onto the shell of a turtle using a standard five-minute epoxy and emits a signal via radio waves at a frequency that is picked up by a receiver carried by the participant. The attached antenna widens the area of reception, and when the signal is detected, the receiver beeps.  The beeps gets louder and more frequent the closer the receiver gets to the transmitter. Some receivers also have a visual signal, like a needle on a scale, and the needle moves to higher numbers the closer the receiver gets to the transmitter).

A student using a receiver to find a box turtle with a radio transmitter attached.

A student using a receiver to find a box turtle with a radio transmitter attached.

The approximate location of the turtle can be determined by using a technique called triangulation, which is determining the location of the transmitter from several points. Begin by rotating slowly in a circle finding the strongest signal to get your first direction. Walk towards the signal stopping several times to reassess signal strength and direction. Then, deliberately walk past or at an angle to the strongest signal reading and then repeat the same action in order to get several linear measurements that help pinpoint more specifically the location of the turtle. The technique of walking towards the signal and passing it allows you to avoid the problem of stopping too soon to do a detailed search in a small area when the turtle is actually many meters away.

Testing for the radio signal from several different allows the observer to move accurately towards the approximate location of the telemetered animal. In this illustration, the testing points are 1, 2, and 3 and the location of the turtle is indicated by the X located in the triangle produced by intersecting lines.

Testing for the radio signal from several different allows the observer to move accurately towards the approximate location of the telemetered animal. In this illustration, the testing points are 1, 2, and 3 and the location of the turtle is indicated by the X located in the triangle produced by intersecting lines.

Once the receiver is very close to the turtle, examine the ground closely and point the antenna to the ground until the box turtle is found. If the antenna is detached from the receiver, the receiver can be skimmed along the ground to find a box turtle that is nestled under leaves or mud.

Global Positioning System (GPS) coordinates should be recorded at each location. Tracking at least several times a week is a good idea, each time starting where the turtle was last located. Although box turtles have fairly small home ranges and do not typically move very far in a day, they occasionally strike out and move greater distances to look for food, mates or for a place to lay eggs.  Becoming proficient at using telemetry equipment takes time and practice, so we typically do this in small groups or pairs.

Data Collection

Data collection includes various measurements of the turtle’s body, descriptions of habitat, environmental conditions and location (use GPS to determine the coordinates). Box turtles are then sexed, measured and marked. The best way to determine the sex of a box turtle is by looking at a turtle’s plastron, tail length and eye color, though there are many other sex characteristics including shape of the shell and the curvature of hind foot toenails.  Males often have longer, wider tails than females, a plastron that has an indentation, and red eyes. Females have thinner tails, a flat plastron, and usually have brown eyes.   Click on this Prezi presentation to learn more about sexing turtles and take a quiz: “Sexing box turtles” by Ashley LaVere.

We assign box turtle to an age class of hatchling, juvenile or adult.  To determine class, we assess the size of the animal as well as count annuli, which are the rings on each scute of the box turtle’s carapace or plastron. It is not accurate to say you can age a turtles by counting annuli, but scientists feel that estimates are more accurate the fewer annuli a turtle has.  So, for example, turtles with less than 12 to 18 annuli can certainly be considered young adult turtles and are likely to be sexually mature.  Fewer than 12 annuli allows us to approximate age more accurately so that a turtle with 9 annuli may be approximately aged at 9 years.

As turtles age, the annuli become crowded in the margins and with difficulty it is possible to eke out readings of 18 to 20 or more annuli. At this point, most researchers lend little credibility to the counting of annuli as there is concern that annuli are not really annuli, that is, that the rings do not reliably represent a year.  In adult turtles annuli may better represent a growth period rather than a year of life. Growth can be interrupted for overwintering but also for periods of reproduction in females, drought, illness and other unknown causes.

Students measure the box turtle with a spring scale. Note that the student keeps both hands under the turtle as a precaution

Students measure the box turtle with a spring scale. Note that the student keeps both hands under the turtle as a precaution.

Box turtles are weighed with either a spring scale, clipped onto the back end of the turtle shell’s scutes, or by placing the box turtle on a digital scale. If using a spring scale, have a partner put their hands under the turtle for support in case the clip releases. Record the weight when all hands are off the turtle and the turtle is hanging from the scale. Digital scales are safer if the turtle cooperates, which is more typical than not.

Measuring the straight carapace length (SCL) of an Eastern Box Turtle using calipers.

Measuring the straight carapace length (SCL) of an Eastern Box Turtle using calipers.

Box turtle shell measurements are taken with calipers. The carapace length and width, the plastron length from hinge to anterior end and posterior end and the total plastron length are all recorded. The height of the turtle (from carapace to plastron) is also measured. Refer to the diagrams in the Box Turtle Connection book, available free online, which includes detailed illustrations of the measurements.  Release all box turtles at the point of capture as soon as data have been collected and the turtle is marked if you are doing a mark-recapture study.

It is important for the participants to learn that sometimes harm is done with the best of intentions.  Well-meaning people sometimes move box turtles that are crossing roads to new distant locations. However, box turtles are home bodies and do not adjust well to new unfamiliar habitats. If you want to help box turtles, which are crossing the road, and you can do so safely, then move them to the side of the road where they are heading.  Print out the box turtle post card on our website here which is a nice addition to home refrigerators and will serve as a reminder of why turtles need to stay in their own wild homes.

Data Reporting and Access: The HERP Project, The Carolina Herp Atlas & The Box Turtle Connection

In the Carolinas, participants may upload data to the Carolina Herp Atlas (, a citizen science database initiated to document the distributions of amphibians and reptiles across North and South Carolina. Another option is to use the free Herp Project android application (available for free download at to record data and upload it to an open source database found on the Herp Project website ( which is available to everyone.  This enables comparisons of current data with those collected in previous years and previous sites.

Scientists interested in access to long term mark-recapture data collected as part of the Box Turtle Connection project should send a request to the authors with information about how you would use the data. This database contains records of thousands of box turtles collected since 2008 at over 30 sites in North Carolina.

Teaching Points: Importance of project and threats to environment

Box turtles are an essential part of the environment and are the state reptile in at least 4 states.  They are omnivores, contributing to the food web both as predators and as prey.  They eat a variety of plants, mushrooms and insects and comfortably dine on carrion when the opportunity arises.  Many young turtles and some adult turtles fall prey to raccoons, coyotes, turkeys, and domestic dogs. Additional mortality results from cars, tractors and mowers. They are particularly susceptible to habitat fragmentation and habitat destruction.  Since most box turtles have small home ranges, building roads for housing developments and shopping malls often means cutting through their home places.  Turtles must cross roads to reach food, water, mates and safe places to overwinter. This puts them at risk of getting hit by cars or being moved to unfamiliar territory by well-meaning people.  A box turtle moved from its home may spend the rest of its life trying to get back home.  Box turtles are also some of the slowest reproducing species in the world. Females don’t reach sexual maturity until around the age of ten. Compare this with a White-tailed Deer female who can produce a fawn at 18 months of age.  So in the 10-12 years it takes a box turtle to lay her first clutch, there could by 7 generations of deer.  By studying box turtles, we can learn more about the turtle’s migration patterns, reproduction, health, condition, and habitat choice.  We also learn about the human caused threats to long term health of populations.  Like people, box turtles can live to be more than 100 years, yet unlike humans, their life expectancy is falling rather than rising.  Watch this video for ideas for ways to describe this to participants.

Box turtles catch colds and get fungal infections. One particularly bad virus is the Ranavirus, which causes respiratory distress and sometimes death. If you find a box turtle with a gaping mouth and see that the inside of the mouth is covered with white pasty lumps then you should contact a wildlife veterinarian. The Ranavirus is very contagious, and it is important to isolate a sick turtle.  This is yet another reason why deliberately transporting box turtles to new locations is dangerous, as these turtles could be vectors of disease that could spread quickly within the turtle population at the release site.

Some box turtles have shell injuries (nicks, scratches, missing pieces) or missing limbs (a back foot, a partial leg), but they seem to be able to survive the mishaps that caused these deformations.


In a mark/recapture study, you can tell if you have caught the same turtle before because each turtle has been marked with an individual code (three notches representing three letters). Each turtle is marked on its shell by filing a ‘V’ marking on three marginal scutes. These scutes are designated as each letter of the alphabet, A to X. The carapace of a turtle usually has 24 scutes around the perimeter- each scute representing a letter in the alphabet, A to X. Marking each turtle by filing three notches with a triangular file, will allow you to identify the turtle if it is recaptured, determine if the turtle has moved location, gained weight or been injured.

A student filing the carapace of a box turtle.

A student filing the carapace
of a box turtle.


A box turtle with three notched scutes.

A box turtle with three notched scutes.

Useful Resources: Links and More Information

Download the Standards Connections in .doc or .pdf format.

Funding Acknowledgement

This project is supported by the National Science Foundation, Grant No.  DRL-1114558. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this manuscript are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Transcripts of Videos

Transcript of What do box turtles eat?

Christine: They’re really interesting in the way they hunt and so I want you to see, yep, let’s get not focused on her but on, there you go, see?  I want you to watch how they hunt and how they eat.

(box turtle snaps at worm) Do you see where he went for first?  He went right for the head.  He didn’t do a good job of catching it but he went for it.

(Talking to the female turtle) I’ve got one for you too, here you go.

So, and the cool thing is, see how they’re very visual?  Different animals hunt different ways: some use hearing, some use smell.  You can see that they’re visual hunters, you can see how they kinda look at it.  They look at it and then they kinda figure out where they’re gonna bite it and then they come down on it.

Participant: Do they always make that noise?

Christine: When they eat slimy things they make that noise.  When turtles eat… The other thing they really like to eat is slugs and a turtle eating a slug is just hilarious because, you know, slimy slugs are….

(Talking to the female turtle) You ready?

I’ll put this one further away so you can watch her see it.

(Female turtle walks up to worm and bites it)  So you see, she’s gone right for the head.  You see she watches, she sees where it is, she’s looking at it, and then they go right down.  I think that’s really interesting, I really enjoy watching the turtles.  So, I think it’s pretty cool.

So, they’re omnivores, which means what?

Participant: They eat plants and animals.

Christine: Right.  Since they eat earthworms, and they eat slugs, what else or what other meat do you think they might eat in the wild?

Participants: Insects.

Christine: Right, well, think about it, what kinds of insects would they eat?  Where are they going to be located, where are these guys located?

Participant: Snails.

Christine: Like, you know, they grubs, and I learned yesterday they also eat millipedes.  I didn’t think anything could eat millipedes because millipedes have a toxin.

I know, do you see her looking at me?  (Talking to the female turtle) Would you like a strawberry next?  I don’t know if she’ll want a strawberry.

(Christine drops a worm and a strawberry in front of a turtle) Look, look, look, here you go.

So, they’re going to finding the type of animals, the type of organisms that live under logs, right?  So, beyond the worms, they also eat plants, right, vegetation.  So what types of vegetation do you think they would eat?

Participant: Mushrooms.

Christine: They eat mushrooms.  And one of the interesting things that you guys know or you should know, that many of the mushrooms that grow out in the woods are toxic to us, right?  They are not to the box turtles and so, um, what the Native Americans found out was that sometimes they would eat box turtles and end up with stomach aches.  What they found out from watching was that box turtles ate poisonous mushrooms and then they ate those box turtles, then they got sick.  So it’s kinda like the poison dart frogs, it’s kinda the same way, they’re only poisonous if they eat a certain kind of ant that has that toxin.  The box turtles are the same way so if they eat a poisonous mushroom and then we were to eat them, then that toxin, it stays in their body for a while so that they would be toxic for a bit.

Participant: How long does the toxin last?

Christine: You know, I don’t know how long the toxin lasts but it may be dependent on the type of mushroom, because some mushrooms are more toxic than others, and how much they ate.  I think all those factors would come into play on how long it would stay in their system.  So that’s a good question.

So they eat mushrooms and we know they eat strawberries as they’re trying to eat it.  What else do you think they eat, that’s plants?

Participant: Blueberry

Christine: They might eat some blueberries.  There’s another berry that they really really like that grows wild, kinda, lots of seeds, they’re thorny…

Participant: Blackberries?

Christine: Blackberries! They LOVE blackberries, and actually a lot of baby box turtles will go to the blackberry bushes when the blackberries ripen and just hang out there for a while and eat the blackberries.  So if you have blackberries growing in your yard, it’s a great thing to have and don’t get rid of them because they’re important for the baby box turtles.

Any other thoughts on what they might eat other than mushrooms, berries?

Participant: Roadkill?

Christine: Oh yeah, I didn’t know that until recently, I was reading something, but yes, they will eat dead animals.  That’s part of their meat thing.

So they’re not picky, it doesn’t seem like they’re very picky eaters.  Do they have teeth?

Participant: No.

Christine: Are there any turtles that have teeth?   No turtles have teeth.  All turtles have beaks.  They actually have a sharp, if you were able to see their skull you could see there is a sharp plate that goes around with kindof a point at it, and that is the beak that they use to eat.


Transcript of Why study box turtles

Hayley: So why do you guys think that we are paying specific attention to box turtles?  Why are we trying to study them?

Participant: Because they’re endangered?

Hayley: So, that’s a good answer, a lot of people think that, but, they’re actually not endangered yet, but they are of concern because the numbers are declining.  So they’re not yet to the point where they’re like a panda which is really, super endangered, but we’re noticing a decline, especially in babies.  So when they do studies, they’ll find lots of adult turtles and they for, you know, 100 years.  So they’ll find ones that are, you know, full grown, have been living for a while but there’s not as many hatchlings as we would like.  So these turtles will eventually get to the point where they’re too old to lay eggs, or they’ll get old and pass away, we want to make sure there are enough babies to replace them.  And so we don’t quite know why.

Do you guys have an idea of why we’re losing so many babies or where our box turtles are going?  Just any guess, it doesn’t matter.

Participants: The eggs get destroyed.

Hayley: Yeah, so that’s one thing that is a danger to them, like rats, you know, raccoons, lots of our native predators can go after box turtle eggs and hatchlings.  So that’s one of the dangers to the babies.  And then, for the adults, what do you think happens to the adults?

Participant: They get hit by cars?

Hayley: Yeah, so, when they’re, you know, this big and solid, they really don’t have a whole lot of natural predators, they’re pretty much a fortress.  But they do encounter troubles when they’re crossing our roads and they get hit by cars because a lot of the times, you know, they’re just trying to get to a place where they would lay their eggs and, they’re not designed to understand how roads work so they walk the same route they’ve always walked.  When there’s a road there one day they get hit by cars.  And that’s kinda what happens to a lot of turtles.

The Box Turtles Project Curriculum
Download The Box Turtle Curriculum

The HERP Project: Box Turtles Jan 2017(docx) OR Box Turtles Jan 2017(pdf)