Site Index



Box Turtles

Box turtles (genus Terrapene) are relatively small, land-dwelling reptiles with a unique, hinged shell design enabling them to completely withdraw their head and limbs and totally close their shell (like a closed box). This design affords total protection to their soft tissues when threatened by predators. Box turtles are very popular as pets in the United States. Most of the box turtles kept as pets are collected in the United States, but 4 species are also found in Mexico. The Eastern or Common Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina) and the Three-Toed Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina triunguis) seem to be the hardiest in captive situations.

Natural History:
The range of the box turtle varies from the open woodlands of the Eastern Box Turtle, the swampy environment of the Florida species (Terrapene carolina baun), the marshy habitat of the Gulf Coast Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina major), to the harsh desert environment of the Desert Box Turtle (Terrapene ornata luteola). Box turtles are terrestrial but occasionally enter water for soaking and/or drinking. They are generally regarded as poor swimmers. Box turtles appear to be long-lived. One Three-Toed Box Turtle apparently lived 130 years at an Eastern zoo. Another was found in 1931 with a nearly worn-away date of 1809 carved into its shell! Box turtles are omnivorous. They enjoy both live, whole animal food (earthworms, slugs, snails and other invertebrates), as well as fruits and berries.

Mating season occurs after the turtles emerge from hibernation. Courtship may be prolonged, involving the male's biting of the shell and limbs of the female. During copulation, the male is locked onto the rear margin of the female's shell by his hind feet and leans over backwards. During mating season, the male may exhibit increased activity and "penis fanning." The penis resembles a purple flower that may be mistaken for a prolapse by those unfamiliar with the turtle's normal anatomy. Egg-laying usually occurs in June and July1 in the late afternoon or early evening. Between 2 and 7 (usually 4 or 5) eggs are laid, measuring 3/4 of an inch by 1 1/4 inch. Females can retain semen for long periods after copulation. One such documented case involved a captive box turtle laying 5 fertile eggs 4 years after any possible contact with a male.