The teacher looked down at the boy gazing out the window.
"Peter? Mr. Marteka? I know you would probably rather be out hiking than listening to me lecture about turtles, but can you answer the question? You know, 'What's the difference between painted turtles and box turtles?'"
"Well, I," I would have stammered. "I, um, I think the box turtle has…what was the question?"
Wow! What a way to celebrate the "Year of the Turtle" last week by misidentifying the photo of reptiles sunning themselves on a log that ran with last week's column. The painted are probably just about the most common turtle in the state. And box turtles – which I identified them as - would never be seen passing the time away on a log. I arrived at work Monday with an e-mail inbox and voice mailbox full of "Love the column, but…" messages.
"I do need to mention though," the first e-mailer wrote, "that the turtles featured in the picture are painted turtles, not box turtles. Box turtles live primarily on land and are shaped quite differently than the painted turtles in your picture. No big deal, but I'm sure you'll hear this from a few more people."
About 50 e-mails and 20 missed calls because my voicemail was full. I felt like the guy who wrote the "Dewey Defeats Truman" headline. I mirrored Vice President Dan Qualye as he told the student he had to add an "E" at the end of potato. So what's the big deal? A turtle is a turtle right?
"This is important," noted Karl Wagener, executive director of the council on environmental quality, in an e-mail, "because box turtles are declining and are classified as a species of special concern, while painted turtles are one of the state's most common species. Confusion is likely to arise when the state tries to protect, through regulation, a species that appears – erroneously - to be one that people see all the time."
I thought I would gloss over my gaff by saying these turtles were actually rebel box turtles who always wanted to be painted turtles. But as one reader pointed out: "Box turtles are land turtles and would not ever want to find themselves in the middle of a pond." Another reader told me to stay away from turtles and herpetologists.
"A little time with the Peterson's guide or even the Internet would probably confirm the exact type of turtle," added another reader.
So I offer no excuses for my blunder. All I can say is I'm happy to report there are lots of turtle lovers out there and that's good news for a species that needs our attention no matter if you are a box turtle, painted turtle or confused writer who didn't pay enough attention in science class.