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What You Should Know About Eastern Box Turtles

Commentator Philip Gerard recently found two box turtles in his backyard here in North Carolina, which honors the Eastern Box Turtle

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The American Eastern Box Turtle (EBT)

  • They can live to 100 years, just like people. Not such a biggie when you consider almost half of that time is spent hibernating (or, more accurately, brumating).
  • They spend their whole lives in a 2 to 4 acre home range (again like many people). When not moving around, box turtles hunker down in depressions they make by digging away vegetation and the top inch of soil. These depressions are called “forms.”
  • They have an instinctive homing ability which is why, if caught, they should not be released anywhere except exactly where they were found or they will travel endlessly to get home, crossing roads and putting themselves in harm's way. Not good!
  • Studies suggest they navigate by the sun and so, during long periods of cloud cover, can wander off their home range and possibly cross a road. When the sun comes out, they head home, crossing that road again.
  • Their penchant for bright colors, especially yellows, attract them to the yellow stripes on roads. Not good!
  • They like to stay hidden or dug-in in cool, moist wooded areas, and they like to come out when it rains to forage for food and water and to mate.
  • One difference between the male and female is generally the male has bright red eyes, just like in some people :-)
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  • They mate only through random chance meetings (again, just like some people) so low population density in one area dooms that population to extinction. Not good!
  • After mating once, they can lay fertile eggs up to four years from that one mating. This helps to compensate for their inability to find a mate.
  • Females can lay up to three clutches of from two to ten eggs each. The eggs typically incubate for 75 to 85 days at 75% to 85% humidity. Box turtles exhibit TSD (temperature-dependent sexual determination), which means that eggs incubated at 71°F (22°C) produce males. Eggs incubated at 79°F (26°C) produce a mixed ratio of males and females and eggs incubated at 88°F (31°C) produce females. Scientists figure out why female turtles are born at higher temperatures
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  • No two are the same (like people). Color and design vary from almost solid yellow to almost solid black, with myriads of designs. Combinations and shades of white, black, brown, yellow, and red mark their skin and shells.
  • They have favorite nesting and hibernating sites in their home range. Sometimes they'll establish two home ranges — one area for cool spring and late summer conditions, another for hot summer conditions — with a migratory route between. If a road goes through their home range, they may be forced to cross it at least once a year to get to nesting or hibernation sites. Not good!
  • Don't try to eat an eastern box turtle! Part of its diet is poisonous mushrooms. These mushrooms don’t hurt the turtles, but they can kill people! The toxins accumulate in the turtle's body and if you eat the turtle, it can kill you... what a way to go! Anyone for a MacTurtle burger without mushrooms? How about our Killer MacTurtle burger with mushrooms?
  • To remain healthy, they need access to direct sunlight or UVB which keeps their immune systems strong and creates vitamin D in them which is necessary for metabolism of calcium and good shell growth.
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  • Fall is the time for raking leaves, but burning your leaves should be done as soon as possible.To you just a pile of leaves, to a box turtle a cozy winter place. A baby box turtle will often choose a pile of leaves as its over-winter location. Burn your leaves sooner rather than later, or leave a pile of leaves for the turtles. Don’t risk burning box turtles with the leaves!

Can I Keep a Box Turtle as a Pet?

Many wild species of turtle and tortoise are endangered, so you'll need to check the rules that apply to your area regarding the legality of keeping them as pets.

If legal in your state, Eastern box turtles can be kept outside in garden-like turtle pens with access to water year round, with little attention, as long as they have food, water, and a place to hibernate. They'll reproduce and thrive on the worms, snails, bugs, and plants in the pen. You can treat them to watermelon and cantaloupe rinds, berries, other fruits and vegetables, and even a little quality, low fat canned dog food.

Although they like to hide, if you have several, there will always be one or two out foraging around so you can appreciate them. If you plan on keeping the turtles, scroll down for information regarding indoor and outdoor housing requirements.

The number of growth rings on a scute does not necessarily show how old a turtle is.

The number of growth rings on a scute does not necessarily show how old a turtle is.

Scutes and Shell Patterns

The scutes on a turtle's carapace and plastron are equivalent to the scales on other reptiles. The Eastern box turtle's shell has the greatest variety and brightest colored patterns of all North American box turtles. The shells of turtles are covered with an epidermis of growth rings which forms the scutes. There is tremendous variation in shell patterns, but six general patterns are apparent.

  1. "Bear-paw" has a paw print pattern on each scute.
  2. "Hieroglyphic" is a pattern where each scute appears to be drawn by an Egyptian scholar.
  3. "Radiated," the most common pattern, consists of radiating jagged stripes.
  4. "Spider Web" is similar to the Radiated with the lines fanned out.
  5. "Thunderbird" is where each vertebral scute has a design that looks like a bird with wings raised. The other scutes can be either a Spider Web or Hieroglyphic pattern. No other turtle or tortoise has this look.
  6. "Bullseye" pattern is probably the rarest of all. This pattern has near-perfect bullseyes on each pleural scute with a dot in the middle and complete concentric circles around the dot. (A very rare and good example is the first picture at the top of this page).

Because individuals' patterns tend to be blended, it's hard to find perfect examples of each of these patterns. The ability to breed for these specific patterns is yet undetermined.

Eastern box turtles mating: Anybody home?

Eastern box turtles mating: Anybody home?

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"... the female, not so much!"

"... the female, not so much!"

Chance Encounters Are the Only Way a Box Turtle Can Find a Mate

They have no way to attract a member of the opposite sex other than by bumping into them. They do not smell a mate or call a mate (with this one possible exception, "the turtle phone").

The indentation in the male's plastron (bottom shell) makes mounting a female easier as he snaps at the female's head. When she pulls it in, her rear pops out a little, making it easier for him to copulate. Males can actually damage a female's shell if she isn't cooperative. Where females are scarce, males will even try to mate other young males and can damage their shells, too.

Population density is vital to reproduction. When populations decline, it becomes less and less likely turtles of the opposite sex will cross paths, and therefore less likely that the population will reproduce at a great enough rate to overcome predation, roadkill, destruction of habitat from human progress, and all the inhibitions to population growth. To help turn the tide against these overwhelming odds, a female box turtle can mate once and continue to lay fertile eggs for up to four years.

Once they have copulated, they can remain attached for up to an hour. This position seems to bring certain ecstasy to the male... the female, not so much!

When mating season arrives, males' activity will increase and "penis fanning" can be observed. The penis looks like a purple flower and sometimes those unfamiliar with a turtle's normal anatomy may mistake it for a prolapse.

Box turtles dig their nests about two inches deep at dusk having staked out the nest sight during the day. They will stop if they feel a stone or hard object with their feet in the hole and try again in another spot the next night or two.

Hatchlings Are Susceptible to Predators like Raccoons but Adults Fare Well!

Examples of Outdoor and Indoor Turtle Pens

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Interior and Exterior Housing Requirements for Eastern Box Turtles

Males and females should be housed separately.

Indoor Enclosures: Indoor enclosures should be at least 48 x 24 x 15 inches (120 x 60 x 38 cm) for one adult box turtle. Its walls should be a minimum of 12-15" (30-40cm) high to prevent escape. A daytime basking area heated from above by a radiant heat source or lamp (85-88°F / 29-31°C) is essential.

Outdoor Enclosures: Where the climate is appropriate, it is better to house box turtles outdoors. Walls should have an inside lip at the top and extend at least 15" (38 cm) above the ground and at least 10" (25 cm) into the ground to prevent escape. Turtles are capable of climbing over or digging under a fence. Daytime temperatures should be 72-75°F (22-24°C) and several degrees cooler at night.

Inside the Pen: Finely shredded hardwood mulch or high quality loam compost are appropriate substrates. Hardwood leaves like hydrated sphagnum moss or or hydrated coconut shell is recommended to increase moisture. Substrate moisture content is very important in the health of a box turtle. Live or silk plants and smooth pieces of wood should be added for a retreat from overexposure to sun or ultraviolet light and for environmental enrichment. Providing opportunities for exercise and a substrate (3-4" deep) for digging will help maintain the turtle’s health.

More on box turtle housing

Dietary Needs, Water & Lighting

Box turtles are omnivorous, and opportunity often dictates what they eat in the wild. In Illinois, for example, researchers discovered box turtles' diet consisted of (by volume) 34.2% plant material, 19.65% insects, 17.4% seeds, and 10.6% snails and slugs. But herpetologists In Kentucky determined that slugs and snails there made up 52% of turtles' diet. Eastern box turtles have also been observed eating blackberries, cantaloupes, mulberries, mushrooms, spiders, and carrion.

High quality, pesticide-free vegetable sources should be provided. High quality, preservative-free, low fat animal sources of food are okay as occasional treats but not a diet staple. A steady diet of cat or dog food can be too high in protein and fat for box turtles. Vegetables should be finely diced and mixed together to prevent selective feeding. All insects should be lightly dusted with a phosphorus-free calcium powder and offered every other meal, and a high quality multivitamin and mineral supplement given once a week. Feeding North American Box Turtles by herpetologist Sandy Barnett offers a highly recommended meal plan.

Hatchlings and juvenile turtles should be fed daily and prefer insects over vegetation. A blender may be used to dice their food finely to ease ingestion. When box turtles reach adulthood, it is practical to feed them only once every other day. Turtles should be fed in the morning. Mature turtles will eat pinkies, which should be offered occasionally.

Foods should be offered on flat rocks or a plastic lid to prevent substrate ingestion. Each animal should be provided its own food dish. Leftovers should be removed to prevent spoilage.

Free-roaming animals are at greater risk as a result of dietary indiscretion.

Other Requirements

  • Access to sun for basking is ideal.
  • An under-tank heater designed for reptile enclosures can help moderate the temperature indoors and should be used in a different area from the basking site.
  • A diurnal cycle of 12-14 hours of light and 10-12 hours of dark is ideal.
  • UVB full spectrum lighting must be provided 10-14 hours per day with bulbs replaced every 9-12 months.
  • Outdoors, providing a hollowed log, slanted board, or heavy vegetation will help protect from excessive direct sunlight.
  • Box turtles must have daily access to water for drinking, soaking, and eliminating wastes.
  • Fresh water should be provided in a shallow container no deeper than ¼ the shell height (many are weak swimmers).
  • Because turtles tend to defecate in water, fastidious cleaning of water containers is essential.

Restraint

Box turtles rarely need significant restraint during exam.

Cranial exam is easier with an assistant restraining the forelimb from behind.

Once presented, the head is controlled with the thumb and forefinger.

Place thumb under carapace and the middle fingers on the other side midway on the carapace; be prepared for a pinch.

If poked or prodded, they usually do not retreat into their shell but may occasionally bite or pinch an unwary finger

Common Subspecies of Box Turtles, Counter Clockwise:  1. Eastern (at 12:00) 2. Ornate (Western)  3. Gulf Coast 4. Florida (at 6:00) 5. Three-Toed  6. Desert

Common Subspecies of Box Turtles, Counter Clockwise: 1. Eastern (at 12:00) 2. Ornate (Western) 3. Gulf Coast 4. Florida (at 6:00) 5. Three-Toed 6. Desert

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What Kinds of Box Turtles Are There?

In total, there are approximately 14 subspieces of box turtles. These are the most common:

  • Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina)
  • Gulf Coast Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina major)
  • Three-toed Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina triunguis)
  • Florida Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina bauri)
  • Ornate Box Turtle (Terrapene ornata ornata)
  • Desert Box Turtle (Terrapene ornate luteola)

Coahuilan Box Turtle

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Box Turtle Ranges

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And these two in Mexico

Coahuilan Box Turtle (Terrapene coahuila) ---->

Spotted Box Turtle (Terrapene nelsoni)

Taxonomy

•Domain: Eukaryota - Whittaker & Margulis,1978 - eukaryotes
•Kingdom: Animalia - Linnaeus, 1758 - animals
•Subkingdom: Bilateria - (Hatschek, 1888) Cavalier-Smith, 1983
•Branch: Deuterostomia - Grobben, 1908
•Infrakingdom: Chordonia - (Haeckel, 1874) Cavalier-Smith, 1998
•Phylum: Chordata - Bateson, 1885 - Chordates
•Subphylum: Vertebrata - Cuvier, 1812 - Vertebrates
•Infraphylum: Gnathostomata - Auct. - Jawed Vertebrates
•Superclass: Tetrapoda - Goodrich, 1930
•Class: Reptilia - Reptiles
•Subclass: Anapsida
•Order: Testudines
•Suborder: Cryptodira
•Superfamily: Testudinoidea
•Family: Emydidae
•Subfamily: Emydinae
•Genus: Terrapene

Box turtles can be taught to sing and dance...

NOT!

NOT!

A Turtle Joke

Once there were three turtles who went on a picnic. Upon arrival, they realized they had forgotten the soda. The youngest turtle said if they wouldn't eat the sandwiches until he got back, he would go home and get it. A week passed, then a month, finally a year, and then the two turtles said, "Oh, come on, let's eat the sandwiches." Suddenly from behind a rock, the little turtle said, "If you do, I won't go!"

However Box turtles can be trained to do tricks like this one! How he did it!

Good stuff to know.

Every Adult Box Turtle Is Vital to Its Population's Future

In the fragmented habitats that are typical of the eastern United States, box turtle populations are so sensitive to losing adults that, in modeling studies performed by Dr. Richard Seigel at Towson University, a loss of only three adult box turtles from a population of 50 males and 50 females could put the population on a slow and irreversible decline to extinction.

Most box turtles never reach breeding age (8+ years): Foxes, raccoons, skunks, crows, opossums, turkeys, domestic cats and dogs, and other animals eat turtle eggs and young turtles with shells not yet hard enough to provide good protection. Any turtles that do survive have to contend with roads and also with development which causes a loss of habitat, which also brings more roads, more dogs and cats, and more people who like to take turtles from the wild, hoping that they can make pets of them. Every one of the years that a wild female box turtle can live is critical to ensuring that, of the three to five eggs she lays a year, at least one of her young will become an adult to replace her in that population.

Why are so many turtles are killed on highways? Could it be that when foraging for food, color is important? The fact is yellows and reds are their favorite! They are attracted by bright yellow stripes on streets and go for them. No doubt they think they are flowers. If the Department of Transportation would paint orange stripes, the box turtle population could skyrocket.

THE TURTLE DEATH TRAP!

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New Roads Through Wooded Areas, Death Trap For Box Turtles, And An Easy Way To Find Them

When new roads are constructed through the center of wooded countryside, the usual box turtle environment, a death trap is created that will drive the box turtle population in that area to extinction. Roads like these are often constructed years before the area is developed and split the box turtle population’s home territories mile after mile. When the roads are completed any turtle trying to get to the other side of it’s home range or expanding it’s home range will be forced to cross these roads. Not once but most likely multiple times over years (and they can live to be 100). How many turtles do you think will remain after 5,10,15,20 years?

But worse than that when a turtle climbs onto the road he is trapped between the curbs of the road which are too high for him to climb over. Consequently he will walk along the curb if he isn’t run over and the sun will bake him to a crisp in the afternoon.

If this kind of new road construction is in your area, and you are interested in saving turtles from a cruel death, whenever there is an all night rain in late spring and summer take a ride down the road after dawn (best if the rain has stopped and it is above 70 degrees between dawn and 11AM). I guarantee you will find a turtle on the road, often at least one every mile or so, trapped between the curbs. Best if it is a road less traveled made mainly for further eventual real estate developments. I know people who do this and often come home with up to a half dozen turtles.

Box turtles come out after a good all night rain or early morning rain to forage for food, mainly worms that the rain draws out of the ground. In late spring you’ll find a lot of males because they search to mate when exiting brumation. In June and July most all will be females because they are looking for their nesting sites in their home range which the road has divided. After a few years fewer will be found and they will be small or young turtles expanding their range as they grow because all the adults of the home ranges bordering or embracing the road have been squished. Virtually every one of the females crossing the road in June will be full of eggs (3-6). A new road through pristine countryside 3-5 miles long can trap over 20 turtles a year between it’s curbs for 5 years until the population starts to disappear.

Box turtles should not be taken from the wild but the damage done to these populations by insensitive, inconsiderate developers leaves caring people no choice but to try by any means to save these populations from such a cruel demise. Instead of building curbs to trap the turtles developers could build curbs in such a way and at no meaningful further expense so as to keep the turtles from venturing onto the roads but they could care less.

Have developers in your area? It may be a good time to start a turtle rescue but check your state laws first. Many states want to fine you $5000 for picking a box turtle up from a road (a death trap to boot) while the same state gives money and unbridled permission to developers to destroy whole vast populations of the same animal.

You can thank dim witted politicians for those laws that do nothing to preserve the wildlife while they allow the businessmen who get them elected to do whatever they want that will destroy the lives and habitats of the same animals they think their laws will protect.

Mowers and Box Turtles

FACT: Every year, countless box turtles are killed and maimed by mowing machines. Sadly, mower operators likely have no idea that turtles are even present where they mow. Read Mowing Tips: How to Avoid Killing Eastern Box Turtles to help prevent unnecessary EBT deaths!

Is This Box Turtle Male or Female?

  1. The iris of the mature male is frequently bright red, while in the female it is usually brown, yellowish brown, or auburn.
  2. The tail of the male is often longer and wider at the base than the female's. Females tails are fatter.
  3. The cloaca of the male is more caudal (further from the shell and closer to the tip of the tail) than the female’s when compared with the rear edge of the plastron.
  4. Males often have a concavity in the caudal half of the plastron.
  5. Females typically have a higher-domed carapace.
  6. It isn't always enough to match just one of these characteristics in determining a turtle’s gender. For example females may sometimes have a slightly concave plastron or bright eye color still being female. What should be done is to see which gender has the most matches.
  7. EBT matings occur purely by chance meetings and these turtles are said not to have any means by which to attract a mate. However, since EBTs are strongly attracted to bright red and yellow, it could be that a hiding female would be attracted to the highly visible red eye of a male who otherwise might just stroll past a partially hidden female. This may be a way, the only way, they have of attracting a mate who is within sight.
Often people will mistake a reddish brown female eye for a male's red eye but when examined side by side, it is easier to discern the difference.