With so little research done on the subspecies, its origins are even a bit of a mystery.

The gravel pops under the small tires of an electric all-terrain vehicle.

To the left and right, clean stands of pine fill up the horizon and underneath the road is full of water after what seems a constant month of summer rains.

Driving the vehicle a young woman scans the edges of the road looking for signs of movement.

Jessica Meck, a 20-something graduate student from Antioch University New England, is looking for a creature that makes this area of the world unique: the Gulf Coast Box Turtle.

 

The Gulf Coast box turtle is one of six subspecies of the Common Box Turtle and the largest.

With a small geographic distribution, from Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle, little to no research has been done on the turtle.

With so little research done on the subspecies, its origins are even a bit of a mystery.

Some scientists believe that the Gulf Coast Box Turtle is a direct descendant of the Giant Box Turtle that lived during the Pleistocene Era.

Other scientists believe that the animal is simply a hybrid of the Eastern Box Turtle, found from southern Maine to Georgia and west to the Great Plains, and the Florida Box Turtle, which is found in peninsular Florida.

While all of the subspecies of the Common Box Turtle share a great deal, they do have unique habitats and characteristics.

One thing that can quickly separate the subspecies are their colors.

The Gulf Coast Box Turtle is known to be darker than the other subspecies and older males are even known to have unique white markings.

In her initial research, Meck has found one characteristic that she thinks is unique to the Gulf Coast Box Turtle; it seems that the female Gulf Coast Box Turtles have larger home ranges than their male counterparts.

While that characteristic sets the Gulf Coast Box Turtle apart, it may also lead to its downfall.

If female turtles, which only lay about 10 eggs a year, travel more, they are at a greater risk to their greatest downfall, the human road system.

According to Meck, the two biggest threats to the species are getting hit by an automobile or being picked off the side of the road to be used for a pet.

“Most people love turtles,” Meck said. “They see a box turtle on the road, or out in the wild and they think the poor turtle got that it can’t survive.”

But according to the young scientist, there is nothing further from the truth.

Box turtles have been known to survive forest fires and as full grown adults can fully enclose themselves in their hard shells.

Meck added that when you remove Box Turtles from their environment, you add an extreme amount of stress to the animal that it may find hard to survive.

The turtles memorize a home range and when removed can easily become disoriented, or will even try to make their way back to their original home range.

According to Meck, the best thing to do, if it can be completed safely, is to remove the turtle from the road and place it off the road in the direction it was traveling.

While box turtles maintain a healthy population, there is growing concern over the future of the species.

“Here people even say ‘I see them all the time and they’re always crossing the road,’ which is true,” Meck said.

“But give it maybe another 50 years and they may not be around as much due to habitat fragmentation, over-collecting for the pet market, mass predation and road mortality.”

According to Meck, that is why she has brought her study to the Forgotten Coast for the second-straight year. She believes that her work and that of her colleagues can shed light on a species that is common but altogether mysterious.

With her work, Meck hopes to draw a complete picture of how the Gulf Coast Box Turtle behaves in and with its ecosystem.

With that data, she hopes that places like the St. Joseph Bay Buffer Preserve can make appropriate management plans for the turtle.

While this area is famous for its sea turtles and for its sea turtle volunteers, Meck takes to the woods by herself.

She doesn’t shy away from explaining the uniqueness of this area's freshwater turtle and tortoise population either, and when she gets the chance to open someone’s eyes to that uniqueness, she says they are usually surprised.

According to Meck, the southeastern United States, and the Gulf Coast region, in particular, have one of the largest numbers of freshwater turtle and tortoise species in the world, with over 40 calling the region home.

For a graduate student who began school wanting to study mammals, Meck’s choice to study turtles and more specifically the turtles of Florida has changed her life.

While she receives directions from her supervisors and peers at the American Turtle Observatory, much of what Meck does is self-designed and self-motivated.

“I can handle just about anything now,” Meck said. “It’s definitely a very tough environment and being a student, this was basically my first field experience. I feel more confident going into the field.”

When the study is done in August, Meck will return to her college campus in New Hampshire and study the data she has compiled over the last two years.

With that data, she hopes to create one of the first, if not the first, scientific papers on the Gulf Coast Box Turtles.

While she is excited to go back and go over her research with her fellow students and learn what they did over the summer, don’t count Meck as being done with Florida forever.

When she graduates in the winter she will be looking for work, and Meck said that she is highly considering Florida as a place to continue her career, where it began.