Box Turtles

Box turtles

Ornate box turtle

Ornate box turtle. Picture by Patrick Feller

Box turtles, also known as box tortoises, comprise a genus of turtle native to United States and Mexico. There are currently four recognized species of box turtles: Common box turtle, Coahuilan box turtle, Spotted box turtle and Ornate box turtle.

The box turtle can be recognized by its domed shell, which is hinged at the bottom, making it possible for the turtle to close its shell tightly to keep predators out.

Species and Subspecies of North American Box Turtles

Below you will find a list over all of the known species in the genus Terrapene.  Look at the meny to the right or at the top of the page to find more detailed information on each species.

Common / Eastern Box Turtle

Common / Eastern Box Turtle

Common Box Turtle (Terrapene Carolina, Linnaeus, 1758)- The most prominent and well known type of box turtle, of which most of the North American subspecies hail. Its official status is “vulnerable.”

Common Box Turtle Subspecies:

  • Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina, Linnaeus 1768)
    This subspecies gets its common name due to being located in the eastern United States. It is one of the more well-known subspecies and its official status is vulnerable.
  • Florida Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina bauri, Taylor 1895)
    This subspecies gets its name due to being found almost exclusively in the state of Florida, although it occasionally can be found in southern Georgia. Its official status is “least concern”.
  • Gulf Coast Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina major, Agassiz 1857)
    This subspecies can be found along the Gulf of Mexico, ranging between the American states of Louisiana and Florida.
  • Three Toed Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina triunguis, Agassiz 1857)
    It gets its common name from its iconic three toes on its hind legs. They are more enduring of new surroundings than most box turtles, and is thus to be regarded as one of the better subspecies to keep as pets.
  • Mexican Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina Mexicana, Grey 1849)
    This subspecies is  endemic to Mexico. There are export laws against in place to protect them, and they are rarely seen in the pet trade.
  • Yucatan Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina yucatana, Boulenger 1895)
    This subspecies is endemic to the Mexican state of Yucatan. While it does not have an official endangered rating  (outside of connection to the main species, Common box turtle; which would place it at vulnerable) locals have reported seeing less and less of them in recent years.
Aquatic box turtle

Aquatic box turtle

Coahuilan/Aquatic Box Turtle (Terrapene Coahuila, Schmidt and Owens 1944) – The only known Aquatic box turtle in North America; thus  its common name. They are endemic to Coahuila, Mexico. Their official status is endangered.

Spotted Box Turtle (Terrapene Nelsoni, Stejneger 1925) – This species has not been studied very thoroughly. It has two known subspecies, the Northern and Southern spotted box turtle, on which very little information is available. The species gets its name for the tiny spots all over its shell. It has no official status in terms of endangerment, due to lack of study.

Terrapene Nelsoni

Female Northen spottied box turtle. Picture from video by Robert A Villa. Watch the video here.

Spotted Box Turtle Subspecies:

  • Northern Spotted Box Turtle (Terrapene nelsoni klauberi, Bogert 1943)
  • Southern Spotted Box Turtle (Terrapene nelsoni nelsoni, Stejneger 1925)

Western Box Turtle (Terrapene ornate, Agassiz 1857) – This species has less of a dome shape in its shell, causing it to look a bit flatter in appearance than other box turtles. It has two subspecies, the Desert box turtle, and the ornate box turtle.

Western Box Turtle Subspecies:

Ornate box turtle

Ornate box turtle. Picture by Patrick Feller

  • Ornate Box Turtle (Terrapene ornata ornate, Agassiz 1857)
    A subspecies of the Western box turtle. Its official status is near threatened.
  • Desert Box Turtle (Terrapene ornata luteola, H.M Smith and Ramsey 1952)
    It gets its common name from being found in several of the dryer states, such as Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.

Box turtles as pets

Box turtles are popular pets, both within their native range and abroad. They need exposure to real sun or proper artificial light to stay healthy. It is also important to provide them with a suitable diet. In the wild, box turtles are omnivores that will eat lot of different things. Their main food source is invertebrates, such as insects and worms, but they also eat a lot of vegetable matter, including leaves, fruits and berries. It is important to give them an equally varied diet in captivity to ensure proper nutrition.

They make popular pets because they are relatively docile but still somewhat exotic looking. Some of the species/subspecies come in brilliant colors and designs. Most box turtles are safe to pick up and will not bite humans; but you should still not pick them up too often or tempt fate by brushing your finger at their snout.

Box turtles do not make suitable pets for small children.  They do not like to be handled too much and should be handled by a calm and gentle adult.  Young children tend to handle them too much, too roughly and move them to fast which causes the turtles stress.   Most box turtle preservation organizations and experts such as Jim Harding of the Michigan State University Museum recommend against giving box turtles as pets to small children.  It is important to remember that box turtles are not “toys” and have no need for “play”.

Box turtles are a bit of a challenge to take care of for some people. Since they have not been domesticated, they are still very much wild animals; even when bred in captivity.  Speciemens who have been handled by humans while young will however be more mellow than wild specimens. Their tank or enclosure must  simulate their wild environment to reduce stress and help them live longer. There lifespan shortens in captivity in many cases. It’s important that you do your research before taking one as a pet.

In parts of the world, including several U.S. states, you need a permit to legally keep a box turtle

Diet

As stated earlier, box turtles eat both insects and plant matter. This combination makes them omnivores.

When they are younger and still growing, they need extra protein in their diet. Hatchlings are almost exclusively carnivores until they are older.

Crickets

Crickets

The animal matter consumed by a box turtle is most commonly insects. Slugs, cockroaches, crickets, worms, grubs, and so forth all make a good meals for a box turtle. Insects are their most common prey because they are small and plentiful, but they will sometimes eat larger creatures when they have access to them. People have reported finding box turtles eating animals such as small rodents and birds that have been trapped or have died.

Plant matter consumed by them is often greens, such as lettuce, moss, and certain types of grass. They will also eat fallen fruits and berries when they can find them. They will also eat fungus, such as mushrooms. Some species will even eat poisonous mushrooms on a regular basis, which makes them poisonous to eat in turn; giving them a defense against predators.

Behavior in the Wild

A common trait that many box turtles share is a deep connection to the location they were born in. Most specimens do not travel far from the place of their birth.

One of the leading causes in the decline of box turtles is humans taking them from their homes and then rereleasing them elsewhere in the wild. Box turtles who experience this will often wander aimlessly, trying to find their original home until they die.

Raccoons eat  box turtle eggs, hatchlings and sometimes hibernating adults.  Adults make a hard target protected in their lclosed shell.

Raccoons eat box turtle eggs, hatchlings and sometimes hibernating adults. Adults make a hard target protected in their closed shell.

Box turtles are sometimes the prey of wild animals, such as raccoons. They are easiest to target when they are still in their eggs, while hatchlings, or when they are hibernating. To defend themselves from predators, a box turtle can seal itself in its shell entirely. Once its limbs are protected, it will sometimes pop its head out to snap at the attacker.

Box turtles enjoy their privacy, and are often reclusive animals in the wild. They like to hide in logs and brush, and will sometimes burrow into sand and mud.

Most species/subspecies will hibernate during the colder months, when food is harder to find and less heat is available to them.

Behavior in Captivity

Box turtles are relatively docile around humans, and rarely bite. Biting cases most often occur when the box turtle was being intentionally irritated or they mistook their owners hand as food. If you’ve been handling anything that your box turtle commonly eats (such as fruit, vegetables, or feeder mice) you should wash your hands before handling them; as the scent on your fingers can be deceptive.

Their shortened lifespan in captivity is due in part to the strong connection they have to where they were born. This is less prominent in box turtles that were bred in captivity, and it is preferable that you buy one that was born in these conditions, and not taken from the wild. This spares wild population the pressure from harvesting and give you a turtle better adapted to life in captivity.

Box turtles do not understand the concept of glass, and should never be kept in a tank or enclosure that they can see out of. Oftentimes, they will endlessly push against the invisible wall in a confused and fruitless effort to continue moving forward. This is highly stressful for them.

Health and Lifespan

Baby box turtle

Hatchling box turtle. Many Box turtles die during their first winter.

Many hatchlings die to exposure during their first winter

The average lifespan for box turtles in the wild seems to be around fifty years. Allthough there is anecdotal eveidence suggesting that some specimens can live to be over a hundred. Their lifespan tends to decrease when in captivity; but poor ownership by many unlearned/uncaring owners has helped shape those numbers. A well cared for turtle that was born in captivity should be able to live as long as their wild counterparts,

Many hatchlings die to exposure during their first winter.

Asian box turtles

McCords box turtle

Adult female McCords box turtle – Picture by Torsten Blanck

Separate from the North American box turtles (Terrapene) are Asian box turtles (Cuora). They share the common trait of a dome shell that is hinged, and can shut entirely.

Just like the various species/subspecies of North American box turtles, Asian box turtles have varied appearance and personality based on the species/subspecies in question. A trademark that many of them carry is colorful stripes going down their neck and face.

While they are omnivores, some of their species/subspecies lean more heavily towards outright carnivores or herbivores (these terms meaning meat-eater and plant-eater, respectively).

In America they are less commonly available in the pet trade. Read more about Asian Box Turtles.