The time my turtle munched on a rat skull

February 12, 2019

Darren covered this briefly on the Scientific American version of Tetrapod Zoology, but the photos seem to have gone down and who knows how much longer any of that stuff will be up. Plus, he had other things to discuss, so the story has never been told in its entirety. This happened back in April, 2014. Here’s the full writeup I sent to Darren and Mike about it back when:

This happened Sunday afternoon and I thought you’d be interested. London and I let our box turtle, Easty (Terrapene carolina triunguis), crawl around the front yard on sunny days — with supervision, of course. She loves to dig around the edge of the sidewalk and flower bed and eat wood lice, worms, and whatever else comes her way. Sunday we saw her biting this biggish thing that from a distance looked like crumpled up paper. She was really going at it, so I got close to see what she was munching on. It was the head of a rat that our cat, Moe, had killed last week. Easty was snapping off bits of the braincase and eating them.

I had read of turtles scavenging carcasses for minerals but this was the first time I had observed it myself. She kept at it for about 20 minutes, until all of the thin, easily broken parts of the braincase were gone. She didn’t attempt to eat any of the facial skeleton or basicranium. Once she was done, she was done — I tossed the skull in front of her a couple of times and she would stop to smell it, but then walk past it, or even over it on one occasion.

So, there you have it, turtle eats part of rat skull. In keeping with my resolution to blog more about turtles, I’ll try to get some video of Easty feeding later this year. Right now she’s hibernating in a plastic tub on the bottom shelf of our refrigerator, so the hot turtle-feeding action will have to wait. Watch this space!

P.S. The gray ring on Easty’s shell in these photos is a sort of bathtub ring, from soaking in her water dish with just the top of her shell exposed, which she does for about six hours a day when she’s not hibernating. For pictures of Easty with a cleaner shell, please see the previous post. She really is a beautiful turtle.

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4 Responses to “The time my turtle munched on a rat skull”

  1. Mike Taylor Says:

    Oh, man, he really means it about the turtle-blogging, doesn’t he?

  2. Matt Wedel Says:

    You know it, baby. My reign of testudine terror is just get started.

  3. Mark Evans Says:

    Coming out of your shell, Matt?

  4. Anonymous Says:

    “I had read of turtles scavenging carcasses for minerals but this was the first time I had observed it myself. She kept at it for about 20 minutes, until all of the thin, easily broken parts of the braincase were gone. She didn’t attempt to eat any of the facial skeleton or basicranium.”

    This kind of behavior is part of why I wonder if this is why mammalian dentaries and maxillae are so common in the fossil record. Dentaries and teeth are the toughest parts of the skull, true, but it’s also kind of surprising just how many isolated ones there are and how many preserve relatively delicate edges but no contacts with other bones (you almost never see isolated premaxillae, for example). I’ve seen some other papers describing targeted consumption and destruction of the braincase to get at the brain and then just leaving the jaws and facial skeleton behind by other small vertebrates, mostly rat and mouse-sized things.


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