Box Turtle Terms and Definitions

If you’re not sure what a word means while you’re reading through the site, check this page. It’s probably here.

We’ve also linked many words within the site to their definitions here, so if a confusing word is also a link, it will probably bring you right here. We’ll also be adding more words as needed.

Brumate / Brumation: The period of dormancy that reptiles (like box turtles!) enter during winter months. They need to do this because they can not survive long in cold weather. They burrow into an area that will stay warm enough to allow them to survive and then their metabolism slows until the weather warms back up. Brumation is basically the reptile version of hibernation. The term was developed because the way reptiles enter dormancy is different from the way mammals do. So some reptile keepers felt it needed a different term. Today the words are pretty much interchangeable. But you should be familiar with both terms, since some people will insist that brumation is the only correct term to use with reptiles.

Carapace: Your turtle’s upper shell.

Cloaca: The opening through which reptiles, birds, amphibians, fish and some mammals excrete liquid and solid waste. It is also the reproductive opening. So your turtle’s urinary, intestinal and reproductive tracts all connect to this one opening.

Cuttlebone: This is, as the name suggests, the bone from the cuttlefish. It is a good source of calcium for your turtles.

Diurnal: Animals that are diurnal are active during the day and sleep at night.

Dormant / Dormancy: When used in reference to animals, it means a temporary period of inactivity and slowed metabolism. Hibernation, brumation and estivation are all dormant states some animals enter into.

Ectotherm: This term refers to an animal whose body temperature depends on its environment. It gets heat from the sun or another source of warmth, and it cools off by going to a shady spot.

Egg bound: This is a problem where the female can not lay her eggs. Sometimes it happens because of a problem with the eggs. For example, they may be too big. It could also be a problem with the turtle herself, like a nutritional deficiency, disease or a damaged pelvis. Other times it is a behavioral issue. Many females will refuse to lay until they can find a suitable spot. In this last case, providing a nesting area can often solve the problem.

Estivate / Estivation: This means going inactive or dormant during a long spell of hot, dry weather. The animal’s metabolism also usually slows down during this time.

Friable: Easy to crumble. When referring to soil, it means it’s easy for your turtle to dig into.

Goiter: An enlarged thyroid gland. It looks like a swollen lump on the animal’s neck.

Gravid: Pregnant; carrying babies or, in the case of your female box turtle, eggs.

Habitat: An animal’s natural environment, or housing for captive animals that attempts to mimic the animal’s natural living conditions.

Hibernate / Hibernation: A period of inactivity or dormancy that some animals enter into during the winter. When referring to reptiles, some people call this state brumation.

Hyptothyroidsim: A condition caused by an underactive thyroid gland. A box turtle with this condition may be lethargic and get fat. Not getting enough iodine can cause hypothyroidism.

Intergrade: When two subspecies mate, their babies often have characteristics of both.

Keel: A raised ridge running from front to back down the middle of the box turtle’s carapace.

Keratin: A protein that is the main component of hair, fingernails, claws, horns, feathers, etc … and, of course, the scutes on your box turtle.

Metabolic Bone Disease (MBD): A condition in which your turtle’s shell and bones get weak and soft. Other body functions may also become abnormal. It happens when your pet’s calcium, vitamin D and phosphorus levels are out of balance. Often the biggest problem is low vitamin D from not getting enough sunlight (or other UV source).

Microhabitat: A very small area within a larger habitat with characteristics that are different in some way from the larger area. For example, when a box turtle burrows into the ground, the microhabitat within his little hole is usually cooler and moister than the rest of the area.

Nest cavity: The hole a female turtle digs with her hind legs to lay her eggs in.

Nictitating membrane: A “third eyelid” that some animals, including turtles, have. It looks opaque or whitish, and the animal can draw it across the eye even while the regular eyelid is open. It protects the eye while still letting the animal see.

Omnivore: Eating both plant and animal based foods.

Opportunistic eaters/feeders: These animals eat food from a wide variety of sources. Basically, they eat whatever is convenient.

Plastron: The bottom shell, on the animal’s underside.

Physiology: The way an organism’s (in our case an animal’s) body works. It covers growth, breathing, absorption of nutrients from food, organ functions and basically all body processes.

Scute: Plates of keratin that cover the shell.

Thermoregulation: How an animal regulates its body temperature. Reptiles, including your turtles, do this by moving to warm areas to warm up and cooler areas to cool down.

Box turtle eating strawberry