The Amazing Mayapple

mayapple leaves carpeting ground by Martin LaBa

mayapple leaves carpeting ground by Martin LaBar (Creative Commons BY-NC)

After twelve years, the first mayapples bloomed inside our three-acre deer exclosure. Almost as soon as we put the fence up in March 2001, mayapple leaves popped up in the lower, wet, wooded section of the exclosure. But they were single leaves, not the double leaves with a notch in the middle from which a single, six-petaled, waxy, white flower would emerge.

Last spring on our mountain the first umbrella-shaped mayapple leaves unfurled on March 30, by far the earliest date ever for this wildflower that often doesn’t flower until the second week in May. The frosts of April didn’t wilt the leaves, and on the 18th of April, I found three double-leaved mayapples in the exclosure, each bearing a large flower bud.

The exclosure isn’t the only place mayapples bloom. These clonal plants have formed large colonies beside our road, along Sapsucker Ridge Trail, and beside the Far Field Road. But the largest colony of all covers more than an acre at the Far Field thicket. One leaf even appeared in the middle of the Far Field last spring, but I doubt it will make much headway against the goldenrod and asters.

As usual the first mayapples bloomed along the Far Field Road on April 27, the earliest blooming date ever during our 40 years here, but those mayapples beside our access road didn’t flower until May 1, right in time for May Day.

While the first part of its common name refers to the month it usually flowers in, the “apple” refers to the yellow-green, egg-shaped fruit that is purported to appear in August or September after the plant has fallen down. I say purported because I’ve never actually found a fruit on any of our mayapples. Although the deer allow our mayapples to leaf and flower, they never allow them to fruit. Or maybe the culprit is the occasional eastern box turtle that finds and devours the odd fruit. Apparently, the seeds inside the fruit must go through the gut of a box turtle in order to germinate.

I had always hoped to find enough mayapples to make Euell Gibbons’s mayapple marmalade, which he describes as “ambrosia” in his delightful book on wild foods Stalking the Wild Asparagus. (He also says that “the woods are full of ripe Mayapples.”) Despite having a laxative effect on some people, many have found the taste of mayapple fruit worth the risk. Back in 1612 Captain John Smith described it as “a fruit that the Inhabitants call Maracocks, which is a pleasant wholesome fruit much like a lemond (sic).” The Huron Indians gave it to the French explorer Samuel Champlain in 1619, and he thought it tasted like a fig. Early Rhode Island settlers called it “a pleasant fruite (sic).” Gibbons claims that the flavor “is not easily described…When I eat a thoroughly ripe May apple, I am reminded of several tropical fruits, the guava, the passion fruit and the soursop, but I can’t honestly say that it tastes like any of them.”

Girl balancing mayapple blossom on her nose

Girl balancing mayapple blossom on her nose, by talkingplant (Creative Commons BY-NC-ND)

Even its odor was debated, and Charles F. Saunders, in his book Edible and Useful Wild Plants of the United States and Canada, describes the strong scent of the ripe fruit as a composite of cantaloupe, summer apples, and fox grapes. Gibbons writes that “I love the sweet scent of the ripe fruit with its hint of mysterious muskiness.” But all of this is hearsay as far as I’m concerned.

Despite the appeal of its ripe fruit, its raw leaves and roots are poisonous. Native Americans used the plant to commit suicide and made an insecticide from it to kill corn worms. Today it is an ingredient in laxatives and is useful for the treatment of intestinal worms.

But its most important use derives from its ability to produce podophyllotoxin, which is “the starting material for the semi-synthesis of the anti-cancer drugs etoposide, teniposide and etopophus,” according to Rita M. Moraes, Hemant Lata, Ebru Bedir, Muhammad Maqbool, and Kent Cushman in their paper “The American Mayapple and its Potential for Podophyllotoxin Production.” These compounds have been used to treat lung, testicular, stomach and pancreatic cancers, and some leukemias. It’s also a precursor to a new derivative called CPH 82, which may be useful for treating rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, and even malaria.

It’s expensive for pharmaceutical companies to synthesize podophyllotoxin and originally, back in the 1970s, when its anti-cancer properties were discovered, the pharmaceutical companies used the rhizomes of our mayapple—Podophyllum peltatum—to produce podophyllotoxin. In one year they harvested more than 130 tons of American mayapple rhizomes.

Then the scientists found that P. emodi, a perennial rhizomatous herb growing in the understory of Himalayan subalpine forests, contained more podophyllotoxin than P. peltatum, so during the next three decades, they switched to the roots and rhizomes of the Himalayan species. The demand by the international market for this plant quickly turned it into an endangered species.

Mayapple with fruit and leaves spotted with rust

Mayapple with fruit and leaves spotted with rust by OakleyOriginals (Creative Commons BY)

For this reason Moraes, Lata, Bedir, Maqbool, and Cushman used a different extractive method on the leaf blades of our mayapple to produce podophyllotoxin. Unlike ripping up the roots and rhizomes, which destroys the plants, leaf blades are a continually renewable resource. Then, too, our mayapple is common and grows in large colonies from northern Quebec and Minnesota to Florida and Texas and west to Nebraska. It also thrives under wide-ranging growing conditions from the low winter temperatures of the north to the high summer temperatures of the south.

Like many spring wildflowers, mayapples reproduce both sexually and asexually. Sexually, bumblebees and other long-tongued bees cross-pollinate the flowers from one clonal colony to another, while asexually the rhizomes continually expand in dense circular clones, usually crowding out any competing vegetation. The plants are one to one and a half feet tall and consist of sterile, immature, palmate-shaped, single leaves or two to three, palmately-lobed, reproductive leaves.

Both its genus name—Podophyllum—which means “foot leaf,” and its species name peltatum meaning “shield-shaped” refers to its leaves. So too do three of its common names—”umbrella leaf,” “duck’s foot,” and “Puck’s foot” (the forest fairy in A Midsummer Night’s Dream).

Its fruit has also inspired several alternative names—”Indian apple,” “hog apple,” (wild pigs love it), “wild lemon,” “ground lemon,” and “raccoon berry.”

Its medicinal uses have given it still more nicknames that need more explanation for modern readers. “American mandrake,” the most popular alternative name for mayapple, referred to one of the most powerful of Old World medicinal herbs, mandrake—Mandragora officinarum—that grows in the Mediterranean countries. Its brown root, which penetrates deep into the ground, often branches and resembles a human figure. While neither the plant nor its flower looks like our mayapple, its fruit is a large, fleshy, yellow to orange-colored berry. It was used as a sleeping pill when the sufferer was in pain or being operated on, as a remedy for depression, and as a purgative. Like mayapple, the plant is poisonous.

Mayapple flower

Mayapple flower by M.W. Fisher Jr. (Creative Commons BY-NC-ND)

“Devil’s apple” may refer to its fruit or, more likely, to its medicinal use, because mandrake is also known as “Satan’s apple.” “Vegetable mercury” probably refers to its similar uses to dog’s mercury (Mercurialis perennis) a poisonous plant that is taken as a purgative or laxative. “Vegetable calomel,” comes from the fact that calomel was used as a purgative and as a fungicide and is also called mercurous chloride, which brings me back to the “vegetable mercury” nickname. “Wild jalop” is similarly confusing. Jalop is a Mexican morning glory used as a purgative, but wild jalop (Ipomoea pandurata), the hated bindweed, is used to treat skin diseases and as a laxative by some herbalists although again it is dangerous to overdose on.

A member of the Barberry family, the mayapple genus has only four species worldwide, our own mayapple and three Asian species. It also has its own fungus—Podophyllum podophylli or the mayapple rust, which only lives and reproduces on mayapple leaves. I find some of the angular, yellow spots on some mayapple leaves every spring.

According to Joan Maloof in her book Among the Ancients: Adventures in the Eastern Old-Growth Forests, the life cycle of the mayapple rust is more complex than that of the mayapple itself. When the mayapple germinates, she writes, a “dark, spiky, club-shaped thing smaller than a grain of sand” also germinates in the forest soil and produces tiny spores. All are in search of mayapple shoots.

When one spore finds a mayapple, it produces a “microscopic, threadlike filament” called a hypha, which is in search of another hypha thread made by a second hypha spore. If they find and merge successfully, they create a hypha with two nuclei in every cell instead of one. They then produce more dark, club-shaped spores which germinate and create a second generation of spores just as the mayapple leaves unfurl. Using wind and/or water, those spores are carried on to the stems and leaves of mayapples. Again the spores germinate and their hyphae look for nutrition and each other.

Under the mayapple parasols by Dave Bonta

Under the mayapple parasols by Dave Bonta

If the spores land on a mayapple stem or vein with sufficient nutrition, they will create more dark, club-shaped structures that will overwinter on dead leaves on the forest floor, but if they “fuse on leaf blades, they will form pockets filled with rust-colored spores,” Maloof writes, that cannot live through the winter. However, she adds that they “can reinfect the plant, germinate, and eventually form the dark overwintering clubs.” The yellow spots on the leaves are a signal that the fungus has used up the food in the leaf cells and infected the leaves. But Maloof calls this “Mother Nature’s yellow and green abstract art work,” rejecting the negative connotation of the word “infect.”

Maloof reminds us, after her discussion of mayapple rust, that a forest is more than its trees. “And in ways we do not yet fully understand, these small things may determine the lives and deaths of trees.” And not only those of trees, but of humans too, in the case of our amazing medicinal American mayapple.

Mountain Meadows

The 150- by 50-foot wildflower garden at Mountain Meadows

The 150- by 50-foot wildflower garden at Mountain Meadows

Imagine receiving a gift of 113 acres on Tussey Mountain.  That’s what happened to Mike and Laura Jackson back in 1988 when Laura’s parents, Richard and Phyllis Hershberger, gave them a portion of their farm.  The Jacksons named their property Mountain Meadows and built a home with large windows for wildlife viewing.

Part of the land had been pastured.  Twice the woods on the higher slopes had been high-graded — “taking the best and leaving the rest” in forester parlance.  Then a gypsy moth caterpillar outbreak dealt the final blow to most of the remaining oak trees.

But Mike and Laura, who have devoted their lives to educating themselves and others about the natural world, were undaunted by the challenge of reclaiming their land for wildlife.  Experimental and innovative, they have learned from their mistakes as well as their successes.

On a bright, breezy day in late October my husband, Bruce and I bumped over the cattle guard across their driveway and into their three-acre yard, which is enclosed by a five-foot-high fence.  There we joined 20 other members of the Juniata Valley Audubon Society on a guided tour of Mountain Meadows.

Laura showed off the 150 foot by 50 foot wildflower garden they had established primarily to attract butterflies and other invertebrates.  Although they had hoped to find a native wildflower seed mix suitable for their south-central Pennsylvania site near Everett, they had to settle for a northeastern United States wildflower mix that included cosmos and zinnias, both natives of Mexico, as well as coneflowers, lupines, scarlet flax, tickseeds, larkspurs, cornflowers, wallflowers, Shasta daisies, corn poppies, evening primroses, New England asters, foxgloves, and golden yarrow, only some of which are natives of Pennsylvania or even the northeastern United States. The day we visited the garden displayed a colorful blend of cosmos, zinnias, and cornflowers.

Mike Jackson shows off a red mulberry tree

Mike Jackson shows off a red mulberry tree

Mike then pointed out a few of the many trees and shrubs they have planted for wildlife.  In the past, they had planted non-natives such as buddleia, Calgary pear, burning bush, and Japanese honeysuckle without realizing they were invasive.  Calling the knowledge of natives versus non-natives “a steep learning curve,” they finally established a rule that “if it is invasive, remove it.  If it is not native and not invasive and provides food and/or cover for wildlife, then we might plant it within our fence,” for example, “blue spruce, holly, and annuals that attract bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds,” Laura said.

Inside their fence, which is a deer exclosure, they can plant trees and shrubs without protection.  Outside the fence, every tree and shrub has a wire fence or plastic tube around it.  But now they use exclusively wire fencing.  The five-foot-high tubes produce “wimpy trees,” Mike said, because the trees grow too fast in the moisture and heat-trapping devices. On the other hand, in wire fences trees grow slower and stronger. The tubes also attract paper wasps, which bears love, so they tear apart the tubes to get at the insects.

Every spring the Jacksons order tree saplings from a variety of sources.  During our visit, Mike sang the praises of red mulberry (Morus rubra). These wind-pollinated trees produce dark purple, edible berries in July that are eaten by eastern box turtles, and mammals such as gray and red foxes, gray and fox squirrels, skunks, raccoons, woodchucks and opossums, and once the Jacksons watched black bears mating below the mulberry trees.  More than 20 species of songbirds are also attracted to red mulberry fruit.  In the words of Charles Fergus, from his wonderful and informative Trees of Pennsylvania and the Northeast: “To observe frantic avian activity, stand in a mulberry grove when the fruit is ripening in early summer.  Birds will be everywhere, gobbling down the sweet crop: grackles, starlings, cardinals, robins, catbirds, mockingbirds, thrushes, thrashers, orioles, waxwings, woodpeckers–even crows, clambering about clumsily on the springy boughs.” Unfortunately, such a sight is increasingly rare because red mulberry, which grows across the southern half of Pennsylvania, “has declined greatly in abundance over the last 200 years,” write Ann Fowler Rhoads and Timothy A. Block in their definitive Trees of Pennsylvania.

Laura Jackson leading a tour of Mountain Meadows

Laura Jackson leading a tour of Mountain Meadows

Other native trees the Jacksons have planted are not as uncommon as red mulberry, for instance, the 50 to 60 eastern redbuds or Judas-trees (Cercis canadensis), which thrive in the southern part of the state and produce a haze of lavender-rose blossoms in early spring.  The primary larval food for Henry’s elfin butterflies, their small, pea-like flowers also provide nectar for Henry’s elfins, eastern pine elfins, spring azures, duskywings, and other early butterflies as well as for honeybees.

Sweet American or wild crabapple (Malus coronaria) is our only native crabapple tree and another species the Jacksons planted to attract wildlife.  Grosbeaks, foxes, ruffed grouse, skunks, opossums, raccoons, deer, and black bear relish the yellowish-green, sour fruits that mature in autumn, partially fall on the ground and partially remain hanging from the branches throughout the winter.

Washington hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna), another tree the Jacksons planted, is one of many confusing hawthorn species. This native produces fruits that furnish food during the fall and winter for deer, rabbits, raccoons, foxes, squirrels, ruffed grouse, and songbirds.

In the former log yard, they have planted a variety of apple trees but, Mike said, they have to pick the apples before they mature and put them on the ground so the bears don’t rip the trees down to get the fruit.

The Jacksons also wanted to increase nut-bearing trees on their property.  Because the American chestnut tree is functionally extinct, they planted Chinese chestnuts (Castanea mollissima) instead.  They also planted sawtooth oaks (Quercus acutissima), an Asian native, because they grow fast and produce acorns much sooner than our native oaks.

Native shrubs that are wildlife attractants on the Jacksons’ property include both red-osier (Cornus serocea) and silky (C. racemosa) dogwood.  These thicket-producing shrubs provide both food and cover for many birds.

Winterberry (Ilex verticillata), still another choice of the Jacksons, has bright red fruits in September or October that often remain on the branches throughout the winter, hence its common name.  Ruffed grouse, cedar waxwings, and other winter birds harvest the fruits.

The Jacksons also put in a hybrid of the American hazelnut (Corylus americana), which produces sweet, edible nuts that are almost immediately harvested by squirrels, chipmunks, blue jays, deer, and ruffed grouse.

In addition to planting trees, shrubs, and flowers to attract wildlife, Mike constructed an enormous, tepee-shaped wildlife brush pile in their woods.  At its base he has a hole big enough for a hibernating bear to crawl into.  Although he set up a trail camera near the brush pile and caught a sow and her cubs on film, so far no bear has hibernated in it.

Mike is an avid deer hunter and has built a huge tree stand in his woods.  During our walk along their woodland trail, we saw many mature shagbark hickory trees, two healthy butternut trees, and an enormous white oak that took three people — their arms outstretched — to reach around its trunk.  Mike also showed us his American Woodcock Habitat Site where he has to remove dozens of invasives to make it viable for woodcocks.

Showing off the woodcock habitat area at Mountain Meadows

Showing off the woodcock habitat area at Mountain Meadows

Back in 2002, the Jacksons joined the Pennsylvania Forest Stewardship program and, working with their Service Forester, drew up a plan for their property that emphasized attracting wildlife.  They have documented their work to improve their land under the stewardship program in a loose leaf notebook, complete with photos.  More recently, they have added American mountain ash and witch hazel to the tree species on their property.

As former teachers — Mike taught fifth grade in the Everett elementary school and Laura taught advanced biology and environmental sciences in Bedford High School — they have been keeping lists of the plants and animals on their property.  Of the 37 mammal species, a Russian wild boar was the most distressing and a bobcat the most exciting.  They’ve also recorded 117 bird species, 29 shrubs, 13 vines, 14 coniferous trees, 78 deciduous trees, 8 snakes, 4 turtles, 8 frogs and toads, 4 salamanders, and, so far, 92 insects, and 8 spider species.

Mike takes special interest in the eastern box turtles and timber rattlesnakes he finds.  One notebook is devoted to the turtles.  He photographs each turtle’s shell and plastron and files a notch on the edge of its shell.  That way, when he sees a box turtle, he can figure out whether it is new to him or a repeat.  Just before we arrived, he recorded box turtle #90 — an astounding number.  Once he watched a female lay eggs on a path that they planned to dig up.  He moved the eggs into a raised bed in their garden and fenced it. He and Laura kept a close watch on it and saw hatchlings emerge from it late in the summer.

Mike, with the help of Laura, is also adept at handling rattlesnakes.  Each year he captures every rattlesnake he sees and measures it.  So far, the eight he has captured have been between 36 and 45 inches long.  He also sexes and photographs them.  When I asked him why he does this, he said, “Because I’m curious about them. Are any returning? How many do we have? How much do they grow every year?”  And once again, he keeps meticulous records on them.

Did I mention that they were wildlife rehab assistants under a local veterinarian for ten years?  In that time they rehabbed 54 orphaned opossums, 34 gray squirrels, 17 red-phase and 16 gray-phase eastern screech-owls, and 7 American kestrels, in addition to barred owls, a beaver kit that the PGC gave them to raise, and a baby flying squirrel.  Laura particularly enjoyed raising owls, but she told a funny story about the flying squirrel.

“We had it in a bird cage, never realizing that it could squeeze through the bars of the cage.  We searched high and low for three days, but never found it.  On the fourth day, I found it… snuggled in a laundry basket full of dirty clothes.  Fortunately, when I decided to wash the clothes, I sorted them one by one and didn’t just dump them into the washing machine.”

The day of our visit their bird feeders hosted three male purple finches and a female.  Their turkey pen held wild turkeys that they raise.  Water lilies bloomed in a water garden in front of their home, which contained green frogs, a painted turtle, and a bullfrog.

Mike Jackson files a notch on a box turtle's shell

Mike files a notch on a box turtle shell to distinguish it from the others on the property

Laura has taken a part time job, since she retired, as Director of the Bedford School District’s Environmental Center, but both she and Mike have taken on an even more monumental volunteer position. As founders of SOAR (Save Our Allegheny Ridges), they are trying to educate people about the detrimental effects of industrial wind farms on wildlife.  Although they are not opposed to wind farms if they are appropriately sited in states “where the wind comes sweeping down the plains,” and even on such devastated areas as former strip mines, they are appalled that for a possible one percent of the electric power we need, plans are afoot to put them on many of the mountaintops in northern and central Pennsylvania.  These mountaintops contain some of the state’s last unfragmented habitat for wildlife.  Already the Jacksons have documented with photos the problems this so-called “green power” is causing on our mountaintops, namely, erosion, despoiling of Class A wild trout streams, and providing, on land that has been cleared for access roads and around the windmills, ATV trails.

Fishermen and hunters are alarmed to see still more of our wild land and waterways compromised.  Studies by wildlife biologists have already documented incredible bat kills during migration as they are chopped up by the enormous windmill blades.  The blades are also a danger to migrating songbirds and raptors, all of which use our ridges as migratory corridors.  Canada has many industrial wind farms, but they have a law that forbids building them on mountaintops.  Too bad we haven’t followed their example.

Every day, it seems, the Jacksons send us notice of still another problem with the siting of industrial wind farms. The Jacksons always thought of themselves as conservationists, but now they have become environmentalists in defense of wildlife.  Wish them luck in their venture.

All photos were taken by Bruce Bonta.

Saving Box Turtles

Imagine digging a trench for a box turtle enclosure in one hundred degree heat! That’s what an army of volunteers did back in July 1999 at the Buttermilk Hill Nature Sanctuary in northwestern Pennsylvania.

“It took an hour to dig a yard,” Dr. William Belzer of Clarion University told my husband Bruce and me when we visited the 500-acre sanctuary on April 15, 2003. Altogether, over a three month period, volunteers dug 450 yards to enclose the three-acre plot with a two-foot-high fence. Billy Ward of Boy Scout Troop #78 out of Hadley coordinated the work as his Eagle Scout Project and other Scout members, doctors and family from the Northwest Medical Center, members of the Bartramian Audubon Society, and staff from the McKeever Environmental Education Center assisted him.

The McKeever Environmental Education Center staff members were an integral part of the enclosure because it was built to hold relocated box turtles that refused to remain on the Center’s grounds, turtles Belzer calls “runners.” Back in 1992 the Center wanted to re-establish an eastern box turtle population in its 200-acre preserve. Like many areas that formerly contained box turtles, its population had dwindled and finally winked out during the last century.

Donated turtles for the project came from nature centers, school classrooms, and animal rehabilitation centers. In all cases, no one knew the original homes of these turtles. Eastern box turtles remain in their home territory all of their lives and if they are removed from it, have great difficulty adjusting to a new habitat. Belzer knew this when he took on the McKeever project but, as he later wrote,…”I believed that with diligence I could demonstrate that by just providing each turtle a year of intense shepherding [by radiotagging the turtles] and retrieval, it would adopt its new habitat after release…and that [I] would be hailed the rugged pioneer who showed…how to bring back box turtle populations to habitat where past allowances of collecting etc. had wiped them out.”

It didn’t work out that way. After seven years, he and volunteer helpers were still chasing after and retrieving turtles that had been put in the Center five years before. A few settled down but most did not. Even more frustrating were those that settled down for a couple years and then became “runners.” Some went miles in pursuit of who knows what because Belzer discovered that there seemed to be no correlation between where the box turtles had come from, for example, eastern Pennsylvania, and where they headed, often in the opposite direction. It seemed as if these lost turtles would remain lost forever, and, at the cost of $2000 per turtle after seven years of work, Belzer was frustrated and discouraged.

That’s when he heard from environmental educators Heidi and Roy Boyle about Buttermilk Hill Nature Sanctuary owned by Kathie Goodblood and Dr. Jerry Stanley. Stanley is a doctor and fanatic birder. His wife Goodblood has an affinity for animals, both domesticated and wild. Their private, gated sanctuary seemed ideal for not only the building of a large box turtle enclosure to keep the “runners” in until they adjusted to the area, but for another scheme Belzer wanted to pursue, what he calls “headstarting” young turtles.

Belzer, a tall, lean, fiftish man with intense blue eyes and long graying beard, met us at the Stanley/Goodblood home where his associate Sue Siebert, had arrived minutes earlier. From there we had a good view of the enclosure on the south-facing slope of what had been an old sandstone mine. It has many features of good box turtle habitat–sandy soil for easy digging, water, an open area, and a young forest, but they’ve been steadily improving the habitat by building large (10’x10’x10′) leaf compost mounds, with the help of AmeriCorps workers, to add nutrients to the soil and for the turtles to bury under during hibernation. Belzer and Siebert have also felled trees to provide better cover for the turtles, repeatedly checked their health and treated them for whatever problems they might have, and supplemented the turtle’s natural forage with other food such as chicken and yams. High quality food should improve egg production and may encourage the turtles to settle down.

The four of us trekked over to the enclosure, not entirely hopeful that any turtles would have emerged from hibernation, although Belzer and Siebert have had turtles emerge as early as April and as late as June. Eastern box turtles, they emphasized many times, are highly individualistic. “Ingy,” for instance, never comes up until June, Seibert said. But the day of our visit was an unusually warm and humid sixty degrees, and we were lucky to see “Jeff,” “Mrs. T.,” and “Robin.” Not only is every turtle named by Belzer for family members or volunteers, but he knows every turtle’s history.

“Mrs.T” had been hit by a car and, unlike Humpty Dumpty, had had Epoxy glue to put her shell back together again. “Robin” had missing toes, she was blind in one eye, and her scutes had rotted off when they received her. Once again Epoxy came to the rescue and we could see it on her shell in several places.

“It’s so pleasing to save these animals,” Belzer told us. “Now she’s laying eggs for us.”

Then there is “Jeff.” Like many male box turtles, he came up out of hibernation and was more interested in mating than eating. Already he was romancing “Mrs. T.”

“She turned her head and he got excited,” Belzer pointed out.

Belzer has discovered, through a series of experiments, that box turtles must see each other before they can mate. That means there must be many box turtles in a habitat to make sure they get together. No turtles in Belzer’s sparse population produced eggs until he moved males close to females.

This is only one of many life style practices by box turtles that are dooming populations throughout their range. They don’t mature until ten years of age and eggs and hatchlings rarely survive because of an abundance of predators such as raccoons, skunks, snakes, opossums, crows, ravens, turkey vultures, dogs, and coyotes, according to C. Kenneth Dodd, Jr. in his excellent new book North American Box Turtles: A Natural History. He particularly castigates raccoons which he calls “voracious predators on turtle eggs…the unnatural overabundance of raccoons [due to fragmented and edge habitat]…could have serious consequences for Terrapene. Because of the long life and secretive behavior of box turtles, negative effects might not be observed until population recovery is unlikely.”Precisely Belzer’s point. Even a long-range study such as a 50-year one begun by Louise Stickel in 1945 at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland has not been able to positively discover why box turtle populations change. All they know is that “the population in 1995 numbered no more than 23% of the peak population of 1955.” Sickel did suggest, though, that flooding from Hurricane Agnes in 1972 had caused females to migrate to the uplands for nesting where they might have been killed by mowers cutting the fields or by cars because of increased activities at the Center over the years.

Another long-term study of a box turtle population in Indiana from 1958 to 1984 also found that both turtle density and population size declined substantially. So too did a 30-year study on the University of Delaware campus.

Researchers James Gibbs and Gregory Shriver, writing in Conservation Biology, have no doubt why nearly half the turtle species in the United States, including box turtles, are in decline. Too many turtles are killed on roads. A press release from the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission cautioned Pennsylvania drivers to be especially alert for turtles crossing roads in late May and early June on warm humid mornings preceded by rainy nights when turtles are looking for places to lay their eggs. They also asked drivers who stop and move turtles out of the way to head them in the same direction the turtles were traveling.

In addition, they warned against picking up a turtle and taking it to a nature center or pet shop. “Turtles brought [there] often cannot be released back into the wild because of a lack of information as to where they were picked up,” said Andrew Shiels, former Leader of the PFBC’s Nongame and Endangered Species Unit.

Belzer goes further and says that Pennsylvania, like our neighboring states of New York (since 1905), New Jersey (since 1978) and Ohio (since 1997), should forbid pet-collecting of eastern box turtles, because the loss of any long-lived, reproducing, adult box turtle is detrimental to box turtle populations.

Ecologist Whit Gibbons, at the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory in Aiken, South Carolina, agrees, saying that “It takes so long for them to reach maturity that once you have an adult, you have a valuable commodity.” So every adult turtle that Belzer releases into his enclosure adds to the reproductive capacity of the population.

His headstarting program is another attempt to eventually add many turtles to the Buttermilk Hill Nature Sanctuary and once again relies heavily on volunteers. Goodblood showed us the three male box turtles she is raising.”I feed them a lot of slugs,” she said. “They like them and I don’t want the slugs in my garden.”

A couple dozen other volunteers are also raising young box turtles in their homes. To get those turtles, Belzer and Seibert keep a close watch on his females in the enclosure. When they are ready to lay eggs, he takes them to his backyard 30×30 yard pen in Oil City, half of which is shaded, but the turtles prefer to lay their eggs in the sunny half. After they lay their eggs–4 to 6 on average–Belzer digs them up and incubates them for 68 to 81 days. When they hatch, the turtles go to the volunteers who follow Belzer’s strict guidelines on raising them until they weigh half as much as adult turtles, a process that takes two years. Studies show that their 200 to 250-gram weight keeps them safe from most predators.

Then he takes a month to wean the young. First he gives them wriggling worms since they are attracted to movement. Then he puts the worms in their commercial food. Finally, they understand and eat the worms. From there they are put in what Seibert and Belzer refer to as the “kindergarten area”–a fenced, wooded habitat on a steep, wet slope a mile away from the enclosure.

On the day we visited, Seibert said there were 20 juveniles inside the fence. If they adjust to the habitat, they will put radio-transistors on them and let them wander-at-large in the 500-acre sanctuary. Then they or other assistants will periodically locate each turtle, record its position with a GPS receiver, note its health status, and supplement its diet if necessary. With this work they hope to learn how far turtles move and which habitat they use. So far, most have stayed in the vicinity of the fenced area, but one went 483 yards.

“One female did a complete football field circle,” Seibert told us.

Seibert never saw a turtle until about six years ago.

“I was a Girl Scout leader. Bill started talking about his turtles at a program he did on pond water.”

She was hooked and started watching turtles at night at McKeever. Now she is Belzer’s paid associate and spends 20 to 25 hours a week in the field tracking box turtles. An alert and observant woman with an engaging smile, she has sharp eyes and easily spotted turtles as they emerged from hibernation.

Both Belzer and Seibert are in this for the long haul. Belzer thinks it will take at least 15 years for his adult “runners” to adapt to the enclosure habitat. But despite all his work to rehabilitate adult turtles and headstart young ones, he realizes “that it’s virtually impossible to bring these guys back, so we need to aggressively conserve whatever is left.”

Habitat loss and fragmentation, road kills, and casual pet collecting are imperiling the survival of what used to be a common species across much of its range in Pennsylvania. An archaeological study in New York state found that hundreds of years after the Iroquois had decimated box turtle populations in western New York, box turtles have not returned to what is good, remote habitat.

Belzer finances his costly work and it is clear that he is totally dedicated to spending the rest of his life championing the eastern box turtle and trying to find out as much as he can about its life history. He summed up his feelings about the Buttermilk Hill Nature Sanctuary when he told us, “I always have a sense of gratitude when I’m here. Here the turtles can be safe.”