FAQ's On Box Turtles

1. Can I get a disease from holding box turtles?
Box turtles can carry salmonella bacteria. Salmonella is a strain of bacteria that can make humans ill. However, as long as the turtle is not exposed to open wounds, sores, the eyes, or the mouth the chances of having problems due to salmonella are slim. As a word of precaution, wash the hands after handling a turtle, or use gloves of some sort.

2. Do box turtle have territories and do they defend them?
Box turtles have what are called home ranges, and it is this area in which they spend their entire lives. A box turtles home range is usually within close proximity to where it hatched, and is on average 750 square feet (230 meters). If a box turtle is removed from it’s home range it will try and find its way back no matter what lies in the way. Box turtles do not defend their territories from other box turtles, and their home ranges frequently overlap.

3. Are there different species of box turtles?
Yes, there are several different species of box turtles; Terrapene Carolina (Eastern Box Turtle), Ornata (Ornate Box Turtle), Coahuila (Coahulia Box Turtle), and Nelsoni (Spotted Box Turtle). The Eastern Box turtle ranges from eastern Mexico all the way up through the southeast into Michigan and southern Maine. It’s species (Terrapene carolina) is divided into six sub species two of which are found in Mexico and the other four (Terrapene carolina bauri (Florida box turtle)
Terrapene carolina major (Gulf Coast box turtle)
Terrapene carolina triunguis (three-toed box turtle)
 and Terrapene carolina carolina (common eastern box turtle)) of which can be found in the United States. There are eleven different types of box turtles living in the North America in all, if the subspecies of each of the four major species of box turtles are included. There is also a Chinese box turtle as well as a Malayan box turtle.

4. How is a box turtle different than an aquatic turtle or tortoise?
The aquatic turtle will spend nearly its entire life in water while the tortoise will spend its entire life on land. The term Box turtle is really a misnomer since the box turtle is a terrapin. A turtle spends its life in water. The terrapin is a cross between the two it needs both land and water. It needs a water source near its home range, as box turtles will often hunt for food in or along the edges of streams, and ponds. However, a box turtle still spends most of it’s time on land and is semi-terrestrial; therefore, it is a terrapin. Unlike the tortoise who is entirely terrestrial or the aquatic turtle who spends all it’s time in the water.

5. What is the preferred habitat of the Eastern Box Turtle?
The Eastern Box turtle prefers mesic woodlands. However, they have been known to live in fields, pastures, and meadows that contain lots of water. The Box turtle prefers to live in areas with a heavy leaf litter or brush for camouflage from predators. Their ideal habitat also contains some sort of water source within their home range, such as a stream or pond. Box turtles also prefer to live in areas that contain fairly soft loamy soil that is easy for them to burrow down into for hibernation and to cool off. The box turtle prefers to live in temperate climates, since their preferred body temperature is between 84 degrees and 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

6. What does a box turtle eat?
For the first five to six years of a box turtle’s life, it is a carnivore. A young box turtle will hunt for its food in and around wetland areas such as streams, ponds, bogs, swamps, and other hydric areas. However, it is not limited to these areas a young box turtle will venture onto land to find its food. What type of food it will eat varies seasonally, this is due to the fact the young box turtle will eat any insect, slug, or meal worm it comes across. The box turtle has also been known to eat carrion. However, as the box turtle matures it becomes an omnivore and will remain so for the rest of its life. The mature box turtle will eat a variety of foods including, but not limited to: fruit, berries, mushrooms, fungi, eggs, snails, small fish, frogs, roots, ECT. The box turtle is fairly indiscriminate in what it consumes. It even has the ability to safely digest mushrooms that would be poisonous to humans, which is why box turtles should not be consumed.
Box Turtle eating a mushroom.

7. How do you sex a box turtle?
There are two very easy ways to sex a box turtle. The female box turtle’s shell has a higher dome than the males; also, the female has a short and narrow tail. While the male box turtle on the other hand has a much wider and longer tail.
(Male on left)

There are also several other ways to sex a box turtle. For example, male box turtle’s have red irises while female box turtles have yellowish-brown irises. The males also have short curved hind claws that allow them to hook on the females’ shell during mating, and the males plastron is concave to fit over the females shell during mating.

8. How many eggs does a box turtle lay?
A female box turtle will lay 3 to 8 eggs every time she nests. She can nest several times a year, so a box turtle may lay anywhere from 6 to 20 eggs in a year depending on the resources available. Over the course of her life time (25 to 30 years in the wild) she can lay hundreds of eggs, although only two or three of her offspring will survive to adult hood.
Box turtle laying a clutch of eggs.

9. When does a box turtle reach sexual maturity?
The male and female box turtle reaches sexual maturity at ages 7 to 10, or at least when the box turtle has grown to its full size (5 to 6 inches for an Eastern Box turtle). It will first mate from early spring to October of its first year of sexual maturity.

10. How often do box turtles lay eggs?
Once a female box turtle mates she can choose to lay eggs at any time for the next four years. On average, a female box turtle will lay 3 to 8 eggs every time she nests, and she can nest several times a year. The eggs will then hatch within the next three months depending on the soil temperature.

11. How do box turtles mate?
There are 3 phases to box turtle mating: 1. The circling, biting, shoving phase 2. The preliminary mounting phase 3. Copulatory phase
In phase one the male circles the female with neck and limbs fully extended to impress the female. He will also bite and shove the female in an attempt to get her to open up the rear of her shell. In the second phase the male will crawl onto the female’s back and latch his feet under her carapace. In the third phase the male will lean back, holding on with his feet and leaning part of his plastron against the female’s carapace, moving himself in a position to penetrate the female and fertilize the female. This process can actually prove deadly for the males because they can fall off the female onto their back and if they are unable to turn back over they will die of starvation. One exception is the Three-Toed Box Turtled, which has 4 stages, the three stated above as well as one where it pulsates its orange neck.

12. What is the Box Turtle’s status?
Box Turtles are listed in the low risk section of CITES Appendix II. This means that continued trade and human interference of these animals without regulation could harm the species but they are not in threat of extinction nor are they endangered.

13. What do box turtles do in the winter?
Box turtles hibernate in the winter. Starting in October and November in the colder areas box turtles will bury themselves underground and generally stay there until about April. It is not uncommon for them to burrow as much as two feet deep to stay warm. Box turtles frequently hibernate in the same place each year and sometimes will hibernate together. Box turtles hibernate based on the fact that their preferred body heat is between 84 and 100 degrees Fahrenheit, this is why on warm summer days box turtles will sometimes resurface and then go back into hibernation once it gets colder.

14. Do box turtles need water?
Yes, box turtles need water. All animals need to intake water because blood is about 83% water. Besides this, box turtles generally need a good body of shallow water around them that they can soak themselves in. Though they are not aquatic animals they need a shallow pool of water for rehydration, getting rid of waste, and sometimes for the food source provided by aquatic plants and invertebrates. Though box turtles can not dive like other species of turtles they can maneuver in shallow water by paddling around.
Box Turtle swimming.

15. What are the parts of the shell called?
A box turtle’s shell consists of two main parts, a top and a bottom. The upper shell is called the carapace while the lower shell is called the plastron. The carapace consists of 5 different types of scales or scute: The largest scales running along the spine are called centrals. The second largest scales adjacent to the centrals are the costals. The smalls scales running along the sides of the edge of the carapace are called marginals. A single scale above the head of the turtle is called the Nuchel. Two scales above the tail are called supracaudals.
The Plastron is made up of five types of scales as well: Two Gular scales are positioned under the neck. Two anal scales are under the anus. Adjacent to the Gular scales are two Humeral scales. Adjacent to the humeral scales are the pectoral scales. Adjacent to the anal scales are the femoral scales. In the middle of the plastron are the Abdominal scales.
Box Turtle plastron.

16. Can box turtles smell well
Yes, box turtle’s have a very strong sense of smell. Because they are slow moving they must use their sense of smell to sense food and predators before they encounter them and thus require a keen sense of smell.

17. When are box turtle’s most active?
In the wild, depending on the surrounding temperatures, box turtles are active from March or April to October or November. Therefore they spend about half of the year hibernating and half active however the warmer the climate the less hibernating and vice versa. From day to day the box turtle is most active in the early morning or dusk and twilight hours, especially after a rain shower.

18. What temperatures do box turtles like
Box turtles prefer temperatures during the day as high as 90 degres fahrenheit and as low as 70 degrees fahrenheit. 90 being almost too hot and 70 almost too cold. Plus 90 temperatures cause the turtles to seek out mud to burrow in or water to swim in and sub 70 temperatures cause turtles to bury deeper into the ground. If turtles can not find refuge from extreme heat or cold they will die.

19. What habitat are box turtles found in?
Box turtles, because they have multiple species and spread across the United States can be found in many different ecosystems. They can be found in deciduous woodlands, pastures, marshland, and often streams and ponds. However, box turtles are often found well outside there expected ecosystem and therefore no one type of climate, landscape or area can truly be associated with box turtles.

20. How long do box turtles live?
The average life span of a Box Turtle is 25-30 years however some have been said to live up to 100 years. Accounts of turtle with dates scratched into their shells from the 1800’s have been reported. Hypothetically, if a box turtle lived in an optimal climate with a close food source, low predation, and limited human interaction it could live for a very long time.

21. Why do I never see baby box turtles?

Baby box turtles can almost never be spotted because they are very well camouflaged by staying below a leaf liter or some other form of distraction to hide from predators. Their soft shells make them very susceptible to predation, and as a result they stay hidden for the first several years of their life.

A Baby box turtle is on average 1.5 inches long when it hatches.

22. What do box turtles do in the winter?
In the early fall wild box turtles will begin to search for a protected place to spend the winter. An ideal site may be in the south face of a hill that is easy to dig into and above water level. Or it may be under the sheltering roots of a large tree, which will be blanketed with fallen leaves by winter or a deep, abandoned gopher burrow. Most box turtles live in geographic areas that require them to hibernate for three to five months of the year. During this time, food is scarce and outside temperatures are so low that box turtles cannot raise their body temperature high enough to maintain normal activity. Hibernation allows the box turtle to live until better times return in the spring. Hibernation is not a time of cozy sleep, but a dangerous time when bodily functions are barely keeping the box turtle alive. The heart rate slows; digestion stops and the turtle cannot voluntarily move or even open its eyes. Many unprepared wild and pet box turtles die during this period.

23. What eats box turtles?

Although box turtle predators include skunks, raccoons, minks, dogs, racers, cottonmouths, copperheads, and rodents, these predators usually are only able to eat baby box turtles due to the fact that their shells are still soft. (A Box turtle's shell does not harden until around age 7) Once they reach adulthood they are primarily eaten by bears and wild cats but on occasion dogs will feast upon a turtle or two. However, the box turtle often survives attacks from predators because it's shell is extremely difficult to break through.
A dog trying to chomp down on a box turtle.

24. Are box turtles good to eat?

Turtles don't have teeth or fangs the way snakes do, so they have no way to deliver poison into a victim. They don't use venom for protection or predation. But there have been many reports of people becoming ill after eating American box turtles. Box turtles are capable of eating many mushrooms that are poisonous to humans. In several cases people have been poisoned by eating the flesh of box turtles that had consumed such mushrooms.
A major portion of the Box turtle's diet is made up of mushrooms many of which are poisonous to humans.

25. Do box turtles make good pets?

Depends. Box turtles take a bit of work to care for and if you don’t supply the proper attention and love to the turtle then it will have a much more stressful life than if it had remained in the wild where it was born. The idea is for both the owner and turtle to be content which means if you want a happy turtle you need to make it as comfortable as possible without being in its natural home range. If the turtle is happy you will be happy.

26. If I find a box turtle in my yard should I rescue it and move it to the local forest preserve?

You have three options:

1. Make it your new pet

2. Just return it to the woods near where you found him

3. Move it to the local forest preserve

For options 1 and 2 you need to research your area’s climate and natural conditions, if they are suitable for a turtle then you can either return him from where he came or adopt him which takes a little more work but can prove to be joyous. For option 3, you can never go wrong with bringing it somewhere legit where he will probably be safest. Regardless, you should definently rescue the turtle!

27. Can box turtles swim?

Box turtles may be clumsy swimmers, but many of them do seem to enjoy it when the right conditions are present. Such as, warm weather and water, a fairly shallow depth, and an easy exit strategy. Some turtles go for a full on swim for up to an hour, others just sulk and chill in the shallow end, either way they enjoy the water and are able to swim if they please.

28. Why would anyone track box turtles?

Researchers track Box Turtles to understand, first hand, how they live. By tracking turtles we can see how they hide from predators, what environment they live in, how they use it, and how we share an environment with them. Tracking turtles also allows us to learn how human impact is affecting an ecosystem. We both belong to the same natural community so it is important to always understand how you both affect one another’s lives and the place in which you both live.

29. What is telemetry?

Telemetry, or more specifically radio telemetry, is a technology that involves the remote measurement and reporting of information. Scientists use radio telemetry for tracking wildlife movement. It is used on all sorts of species from elephants to box turtles. The way that we are using it is to track where turtles travel and to try to find them with wireless signals. The way it works is we securely attach a transmitter to the back of the turtle’s shell. Then we release them into the wild, we wait for a given period of time to let them roam and get “lost” if you will in order to be found later with a receiver and antenna. The antenna picks up the signal of the transmitter and the receiver takes it and plays it out for us to hear, as we get closer to the transmitter the signal will intensify, leading us to our turtle!

Researcher using radio telemetry.
The equipment seenabove is very
similarto the equipment we are using
to track our turtles.

30. How do professional researchers attach transmitters?

Professional researchers attach transmitters in a way that won’t interfere with normal behavior, including reproduction. The transmitters are placed on the rear or lateral areas for males, as for females they usually get placed on vertebral scute 1 also known as the back-most center shell section. These transmitters are often glued down opposed to using Velcro or tape but if these were to be used in the place of glue, it is important to form a smooth surface with the tape to avoid any edges being caught which could potentially remove the transmitter.

31. What are the major environmental threats facing the box turtle?

There are two main threats to the box turtle: habitat loss and capture for the pet trade. As the worlds population grows the demand for more space causes box turtle habitat to be developed, and due to their instinctive need to stay in their home range, box turtles are usually killed during development. Relocation is nearly impossible since they will continue to attempt to return to their birthplace. This means that once Box turtles go extinct from an area they will most likely never return.
The other threat, capture for the illicit pet trade, destroys turtle populations in an area as members of the gene pool are removed causing inbreeding, and a lack of available partners for remaining turtles. If a female box turtle is removed from an area here, future progeny are also removed from the area causing population numbers to decline. All of this leads to the conclusion that the best way to save the box turtle is to leave it alone.

32. How long does it take for the Box Turtle's shell to harden?
It takes on average 7 years for the box turtle's shell to completely harden, around the same time it reaches full size and sexual maturity. Until its shell hardens the box turtle is very susceptible to predation, and other dangers.

33. Do box turtles have ears?

Like snakes, box turtles don't have any "outer ear," the part that sticks out from your head, but they have all the "inner ear" mechanisms that other animals do. They also have the auditory nerve and brain center required for hearing. The outer ear gathers sound vibrations to make them louder. So turtles do not hear airborne sounds as loudly as you do, but they can sense and interpret vibrations in the environment. Hearing probably isn't very important to a turtle though, because their senses of vision and smell are excellent. The brain center for hearing is quite small by comparison.

34. Do box turtles fight?

Yes, box turtles can and will fight. Normally, to show their dominance to a female a larger box turtle will "fight" it's competitors. The box turtles will bite and wrestle each other until one has been turned over onto his back. Generally, the winning turtle will leave the other alone but sometimes he will continue to attack the other turtle until it is completely tucked away in it's shell. This can also happen between turtles in captivity fighting over food. Turtles have also been known to butt heads.

35. What happens when a box turtle is flipped over?
Box turtles never naturally go on their backs. Whether they've been fighting with another turtle, fallen back during mating, or picked up and put on their back it is not a position they like to be in. If they can not get back to their stomachs they are very vulnerable to predation and may starve to death. However, a box turtle has very strong neck muscles. It uses the muscles to flip itself over as it sticks it's head out and presses as hard as it can against the ground to flip over. Here is how they do it: