Nebraska names grassland-loving ornate box turtle its state reptile, two featured at Ponca State Park
PONCA, Neb. – Prairie and Flower may not have the physical stature of the larger reptiles living in the Ponca State Park Resource Education Center, but they now hold a high status compared to their housemates.
On Friday, Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts officially designated the ornate box turtle as a state reptile.
The park’s two captive ornate box turtles, Prairie and Flower, didn’t seem too impressed on Tuesday, possibly because it’s the time of year when they enter a state of semi-hibernation and buried under an artificial log in their enclosure.
Once out in the open, the two perked up a bit, showing the characteristics that make them a fitting choice to bear the title of Nebraska State Reptile.
“It’s been a long time coming. It’s been talked about for a long time,” said Katie Leware, assistant superintendent of Ponca State Park.
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In 2017, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission held an online contest where people could vote for their choice of state reptile. The ornate box turtle was a runaway winner, beating out the prairie lizard, bulldog snake, snapping turtle, six-lined racerunner lizard and western hog-nosed snake. For some reason, this did not immediately result in the proclamation of a governor.
With Friday’s declaration, Prairie and Flower and all of their close relatives in the wild finally received the honor they were due.
“The ornate box turtle is a great choice. It completely represents Nebraska and it’s adorable,” said Monica Macoubrie, wildlife education specialist with the Lincoln office of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.
One of the state’s nine native turtles and 48 reptile species, the 4- to 6-inch small tortoise is Nebraska’s only tortoise or tortoise and is also native to South Dakota and Iowa. Rather than living in and around water, the turtle prefers to burrow in the sandy soils of short, mixed, and tall grass prairies. Predictably, they are found in grassy Sandhills and southwestern Nebraska, and are common to the western two-thirds of the state.
Being a grassland dweller, the ornate box turtle was a perfect choice as a state reptile, Macoubrie said.
“Nebraska is a prairie state, and it’s something we have to own and love,” she said.
Leware said the ornate box turtle’s range may extend into northeastern Nebraska and may even include Ponca State Park.
“I haven’t seen one in the wild here yet,” Leware said, though they can be spotted statewide depicted on specialty wildlife conservation license plates.
Prairie—female—and Flower—male—have called the Ponca State Park Headquarters Educational Center home for more than seven years. Prairie prefers the privacy of her shell, so Flower, who is much friendlier, has performed in countless educational programs in schools and the park, giving children a chance to learn about Ornate Box Turtles and Nebraska wildlife.
It sports the dark yellow lines on its carapace typical of ornate box turtles, so named because the front part of the bottom of their carapace can fold up like a box for protection. His species will eat plants, worms, insects, carrion, and even mice. Macoubrie said they love the dung beetles and Leware said the children were always amazed at how fast Flower could move to catch crickets.
Due to Nebraska’s abundant grassland habitat, ornate box turtles are not an endangered species, and the greatest threat to their survival is being hit by motor vehicles when crossing a road. .
It’s a good state to be an ornate box turtle in, as Prairie and Flower would probably tell you.
With their new lofty title, the Turtles can break out of their shells and step into the spotlight.