Common Box Turtles Overview



Juvenile Eastern box turtle, a member of Terrapene carolina, the common box turtle

Baby box turtle
Modified version of photo by Darkenism


Terrapene carolina is, as its common name suggests, the most common of the box turtles. This does not necessarily mean there are plenty of them around. Their numbers have been declining for years in many parts of their range.

There are many reasons for this, but two big ones are:

  • Harvesting them for the pet trade
  • Destruction of their habitats

Habitat of the Common Box Turtle

The common box turtle’s subspecies live in a variety of places. Many of them like woodlands, with their shade trees and moist soil and leaf cover. This gives them the humidity they need. It’s also nice and soft for burrowing and egg laying.

You’ll also find box turtles in grasslands and even deserts. But even in these habitats, they find themselves humid spots to hide, even if they have to dig underground to do it.

Most of the common box turtle’s range is in the eastern United States. Two species also live in several areas along Mexico’s eastern coast.

Habits of the Common Box Turtle

Box turtle, like humans, are diurnal. This means that they eat and explore during the day and sleep at night. Each night they find a safe, protected place to sleep, like under a rock or low plant.

Box turtles need easy access to water. They will take “baths” in a shallow stream, pond or even puddle. During hot periods, they’ll dig down into the mud and stay there for days. When summers get hot and dry, they can hide even longer, waiting for humidity to return. They’ll often burrow under a pile of leaves. This behavior is called estivation.

During the winter, they brumate to survive the cold.

Females tend to lay eggs between May and June. She will dig a hole, deposit one or more eggs and then cover them carefully. The whole process can take several hours.

Food of the Common Box Turtle

There is no real “typical” box turtle diet, since it varies depending on what is available where they live. They are opportunistic feeders, meaning they will feed on a variety of food items. Some things almost every common box turtle will eat include:

  • Earthworms
  • Grubs
  • Snails
  • Berries
  • Flowers
  • Duck weed
  • Fallen fruits

When feeding pet box turtles, you need to give them a similar variety of foods that contains all the nutrients they need. These can include:

  • Worms
  • Crickets
  • Cockroaches
  • Strawberries
  • Berries
  • Fruit
  • Mushrooms
  • Greens

Captive box turtles may also need vitamin and mineral supplements, including calcium and vitamin A.

Appearance of the Common Box Turtle

The various subspecies of this box turtle vary in size and appearance. Each has certain characteristics specific to that subspecies, but there’s also a lot of overlap, especially because the subspecies can interbreed. It can be very hard to recognize intergrade animals.

A box turtle’s shell is actually its rib bones. They have expanded and fused together to create the protective covering. Plates of keratin, called scutes, grow over the bony shell. These scutes keep growing for the turtle’s entire life. They can be plain or patterned, and some subspecies have distinctive patterns that help identify them.

The top of the shell is called the carapace, and it is tall and dome-like. The bottom shell is the plastron. A box turtle’s plastron is hinged so the turtle can pull it close to the top shell and enclose its body completely.

A box turtle’s skin is usually brownish or black. It may also have colorful spots or streaks. Skin coloration can also sometimes distinguish the different subspecies. For example ornate box turtles are often very brightly colored.

They have webbed feet, usually with five toes on their front feet and four on the back ones. The three-toed box turtle usually—but not always!—has three toes on its back feet.

T. carolina males tend to have an indentation at the back of the plastron. This makes it easier for him to fit against the female’s carapace during mating. They are also often more brightly colored than the females.

In general, box turtles range in size from 4.5 inches to 7 inches or more. Different subspecies also have different size ranges. Within the same subspecies the males are usually bigger than the females.

Box turtle eating strawberry

Subspecies of T. carolina:

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