Ricketts names the ornate box turtle as Nebraska’s state reptile

LINCOLN – It’s been an exhilarating five years for the Nebraska Ornate Box Turtle.

First, the little state native won a popularity contest in 2017 against another turtle, a few lizards and two species of snakes. Voters were asked which of the six they wanted as the state reptile.

Then Nebraska lawmakers voted to feature the colorful turtle on a specialty license plate that debuted last year.

Now Governor Pete Ricketts has issued a proclamation officially designating Nebraska’s only native land turtle as a state reptile. He made the announcement Friday at Schramm State Recreation Area with the help of a live turtle named Batman.

“Nebraskans take pride in caring for the natural world, including our wildlife and their habitats,” the governor said. “Ornate box turtles are especially popular here in the good life. Thanks to Nebraska Game and Parks for educating the next generation about our state’s rich biodiversity.

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The ornate box turtle joins the sandhill crane as the first state symbol to be designated since 1998. Ricketts named Nebraska’s state migratory bird crane in March, when the first wave of birds arrived on along the Platte River.

“As many as 1 million sandhill cranes migrate through Nebraska each year on their journey north, representing about 80 percent of the world’s crane population,” he said at the time. adding: “The annual sandhill crane migration is one of the most amazing natural spectacles on the planet.

Declaring the Sandhill Crane the state migratory bird means the Western Meadowlark will remain the state bird, a distinction it has held since 1929, despite occasional debates over other other options.

Nebraska also has a state insect (the bee), a state mammal (the white-tailed deer), and a state fish (the river catfish). But none of Nebraska’s 48 species of reptiles — which include nine species of turtles, 10 species of lizards and 29 species of snakes — have been named state reptiles.

Game and parks officials lobbied for the box turtle to occupy the spot, according to the governor’s spokeswoman, Alex Reuss. The department’s wildlife specialists had organized the reptile competition earlier.

Ornate box turtles can be identified by the bright yellow lines on the shells with a base color ranging from brown to black, according to the Game and Parks website. They have yellow to orange markings on their legs, neck and head and males can have bright red markings on their front legs. They can grow up to 6 inches in diameter.

The tortoises are found primarily in the short-grass and mixed-grass prairies of western Nebraska and in the Sandhills. They are omnivores, feeding on succulents, worms, dung beetles and small vertebrates and, according to the website, are extremely active after a rain.

The box turtle and sandhill crane join a long list of state symbols. The list includes better known and widely used items, such as the state flag, state seal, and state motto (“Equality Before the Law”). But some seem like curiosities, like the state floor (Holdrege series), the state American folk dance (square dance), and the state fossil (mammoth).

Until 1997, people seeking a state symbol designation had to pass a law. But lawmakers eventually washed their hands and passed legislation transferring power to the governor to name state symbols.

Former Gov. Ben Nelson appointed several before leaving office in early 1999. He carefully threaded the political needle on some choices, naming Nebraska-born Kool-Aid as the state soft drink while designating milk as a state drink. He declared St. Paul to be the historic baseball capital of the state and Wakefield the baseball capital of the state.

But no other governor has added to the symbols so far.

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