The box turtle and the snapping turtle are among the most popular turtle species kept as pets – but how do they compare? Today, in ‘Box Turtle vs Snapping Turtle’, we’re going to dig right into that subject and answer it in detail so that you’ll have the facts about both species.
Some differences are apparent from the get-go. For instance, the box turtle is a terrestrial turtle that resembles a tortoise, while the snapping turtle is an aquatic turtle with webbed feet, a long tail, and powerful jaws capable of causing serious injuries.
While box turtles are excellent pets for first-time turtle owners, snapping turtles are best kept by experienced enthusiasts who are really to meet the extensive setup the snapping turtle requires.
As far as their names, the box turtle is named after its ability to completely encase itself within its shell. The lower shell is hinged, allowing it to enclose all its other body parts — head, tail, and limbs — inside. The snapping turtle is named for its habit of snapping at humans that approach it.
These are just a few basics to get us started, but if you’re ready, then let’s take a closer, in-depth look!
Table of Contents
Box turtles are turtles of the genus Terrapene and there are quite a few varieties. You’ll find North American box turtles, which are comprised of box turtles endemic to North and Central, and there are several Asian box turtles, which belong to the genus Cuora and Pyxidea.
The North American box turtles include the common box turtle, also known as the North American box turtle, and also subspecies such as the eastern box turtle, the Florida box turtle, and the Gulf Coast box turtle.
The western box turtle includes subspecies such as the desert box turtle and the ornate box turtle, and the spotted box turtle which includes the northern spotted box turtle and the southern spotted box turtle.
There are also Mexican box turtles, Yucatan box turtles, Coahuila box turtles, and three-toed box turtles — needless to say, there’s a lot of variety in the box turtle world!
North American Box Turtles
North American box turtles are endemic to North America and may be found from Canada and the United States to Mexico, as seen in the distribution map.
North American box turtles are divided into four species with several subspecies. Some, such as the Mexican box turtle, are considered subspecies but that may depend on who you ask. For instance, the Mexican Box turtle is sometimes considered a subspecies of Terrapene Carolina!
The Caohuilian box turtle is found only in Coahuila, Mexico. More specifically, this chelonian is endemic to the Cuatro Ciénegas Basin.
The species include Terrapene carolina (common box turtle), Terrapene coahuila (Caohuilian box turtle), Terrapene nelsoni (spotted box turtle), and Terrapene ornata (western box turtle).
Box turtle characteristics
The box turtle is a moderately sized turtle with a length of 4 to 8 inches (10.16 – 20.32 cm). This turtle has a high-domed carapace (upper shell) and its plastron (lower shell) is also large and covers the entire bottom portion of the turtle.
The box turtle can close off its shell, sealing away its head, tail, and limbs. The carapace of this turtle, of course, varies from one species to another, but they are generally brown — it’s the patterns that distinguish them the most. The underside is also brown and has a variety of patterns as well!
The head is moderately sized and has a hooked upper jaw. The irises are yellowish brown in females and red in males, so identifying a box turtle’s gender is a piece of cake!
One box turtle, aptly named the ‘three-toed box turtle’, only has three toes on their hind feet! Let’s take a look now at some species-specific information and then we’ll move on to snapping turtles!
Box turtles and other chelonians sometimes need help crossing the road – The U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife has some good advice on this if you need it!
Types of Box Turtles
Common Box Turtle
- Scientific Name: Terrapene carolina
- Subspecies: Eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina), Mexican box turtle (Terrapene carolina mexicana or Terrapene mexicana), Florida box turtle (Terrapene carolina bauri), Three-toed box turtle (Terrapene carolina triunguis), and Gulf Coast box turtle (Terrapene carolina major)
- Adult Carapace Length: 4.3 to 7.1 inches (11 to 18 cm)
- Lifespan: 40 to 100 years
- Conservation Status: G5 (Secure) on NatureServe, Vulnerable on IUCN
The common box turtle is very aptly named, as it is one of the most common turtles in North America. The species is found from Ontario in Canada, through most of the mid to eastern United States to Tamaulipas, Veracruz, and Yucatan in Mexico.
There are several subspecies of this turtle, so let’s take a quick look at them and some distinguishing characteristics. The common box turtle subspecies includes:
- Florida box turtle – The Florida box turtle (Terrapene carolina bauri) has a dark brown carapace with yellow markings in the shapes of lines. The line markings are also visible on the head and the plastron. This turtle also has three toes on its hind feet and T. c. bauri measures about 4.3 inches (11 cm) in length and .14 inches (8 cm) in width.
- Eastern box turtle – The Eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina) has a brown carapace with yellow or orange variable markings. It also has four toes on its hind feet and T. c. carolina measures about 5.90 inches (15 cm) in length and 3.93 inches (10 cm) in width.
- Three-toed box turtle – The Three-toed box turtle (Terrapene carolina triunguis) has an olive-to-tan carapace with vague markings and dark seams. The plastron is yellowish, and there are yellow, red, or orange spots on the front legs. Males have red heads and the three-toed box turtle has three toes on its hind feet. T. c. triunguis measures about 5.90 inches (15 cm) in length and 3.93 inches (10 cm) in width.
- Gulf Coast box turtle – The Gulf Coast box turtle (Terrapene carolina major) has a dark brown carapace with no discernable patterns, although some say that it may have faint markings similar to that of the Florida box turtle. The Gulf Coast box turtle has four toes on its hind feet and T. c. major measures about 18 cm in length and 12 cm in width. This is the largest of the common box turtles.
Coahuilan Box Turtle
- Scientific Name: Terrapene coahuila
- Common Names: Coahuilan box turtle, aquatic box turtle
- Adult Carapace Length: 4.3 to 7.1 inches (11 – 18 cm)
- Adult Weight: 568 g
- Conservation Status: Endangered on IUCN, Appendix I species on the CITES list
The Coahuilan box turtle is also known as the aquatic box turtle, as it is the only box turtle that spends considerable time in water. The other box turtles are considered mostly terrestrial.
Terrapene coahuila is found only in Coahuila in Mexico, where you’ll find them in the Cuatro Ciénegas Basin. Terrapene coahuila occurs in a very limited geographic range and their populations do not disperse widely.
Terrapene coahuila feed on about an equal amount of insects and plant matter.
Terrapene coahuila has rough skin and its shell is rounded. As an aquatic turtle, they often have algae growing on their carapace and this acts as a nice natural camoflauge. Their carapace, without the algae, are pale yellow and their skin is grey, black, or brown.
Female Coahuilan box turtles have grey eyes and male Coahuilan box turtles have brown eyes.
Western Box Turtle (Ornate Box Turtle)
- Scientific Name: Terrapene ornata
- Subspecies: Ornate box turtle (Terrapene ornata ornata) & Desert box turtle (Terrapene ornata luteola)
- Adult Carapace Length: 4 to 7 inches (10.16 to 17.78 cm)
- Lifespan: 32 to 37 years
- Conservation Status: G5 (Secure) on NatureServe, Near Threatened on IUCN
The ornate box turtle, also known as the western box turtle, is found in the western portion of the box turtle’s geographic range. This range covers most of the middle portion of the United States from the Rocky Mountains and Mississippi to South Dakota and Wisconsin.
There are two subspecies and these are the Ornate box turtle (Terrapene ornata ornata) & Desert box turtle (Terrapene ornata luteola).
The Desert box turtle (Terrapene ornata luteola) is located in western Texas, New Mexico, and southeastern Arizona. The range extends further into Sonora and Chihuahua in Mexico.
The Ornate box turtle (Terrapene ornata ornata) range covers most of the species’ range in the United States from the Rocky Mountains to Indiana and Wisconsin.
Spotted Box Turtle
- Scientific Name: Terrapene nelsoni
- Subspecies: Northern spotted box turtle (T. n. klauberi) & Southern spotted box turtle (T. n. nelsoni)
- Adult Carapace Length: 5.5 to 6 inches (13.97 – 15.24 cm)
- Lifespan: 50 years
- Conservation Status: Data Deficient on IUCN
The spotted turtle is endemic to the Sierra Madre Occidental in Mexico and has a very limited range. These turtles are moderately large, with an oval carapace which is dark brown and flattened compared to that of other box turtles. This turtle gets its name from the yellow spots on the shell and skin.
See our Box Turtle Species page for a list of the many different types!
Snapping turtles get their name from their tendency to ‘snap’ at people who get too close –although they only attack when they feel threatened. Snapping turtles are larger than box turtles and are actually considered to be among the largest turtles in the world.
On average, snapping turtles may reach a weight of about 26.5 lb (12 kg). The largest snapping turtle, the Alligator snapping turtle, can reach a weight of 176.2 pounds (80 kilograms), and is considered one of the largest freshwater turtles in the world.
As you can see, it’s really no contest when it comes to size — box turtles are definitely the smaller chelonians, especially when you consider that the largest box turtle reaches a weight of about 2.2 lbs (1 kilogram).
While there are five species of snapping turtle, only two are well known — the common snapping turtle and the alligator snapping turtle. The other snapping turtles include the Suwannee snapping turtle, the Central American snapping turtle, and the South American snapping turtle.
Snapping turtle characteristics
Snapping turtles are generally dark in color with a rugged appearance. The members of the genus Chelydra have smoother carapaces than members of the genus Macrochelys.
Snapping turtles are known for their massive heads, and limbs that do not fully retract into their shells. In fact, their plastron is tiny and barely covers their undersides1 They have long tails that are almost as long as their carapace — unlike box turtles, which have very short tails.
Types of snapping turtles
Common Snapping Turtle
- Family: Chelydridae
- Binomial Nomenclature: Chelydra Serpentina
- Mass: 8.8 to 35.2 lb (4 to 16 kilograms)
- Male Mass: over 22 lb (10 kilograms)
- Carapace Length: 10 to 18.5 inches (25 to 47 cm)
- Lifespan: 30 years in the wild, up to 47 (on average) in captivity
- Conservation Status: Vulnerable on IUCN Red List, G5 (Secure) on NatureServe
The common snapping turtle is one of the most popular snapping turtles and is very popular in the pet trade. In the wild, this turtle can be found throughout North America from Canada to the Gulf Coast.
Similar to other snapping turtles, the common snapping turtle has a rough appearance with tubercles on the neck and limbs. The upper shell (carapace) has ridges, and these ridges are well-defined when younger but slowly disappear over time.
Mature snapping turtles lose almost all their ridging so that their carapace actually becomes quite smooth. This is unlike the alligator snapping turtle, which has spiky ridges and gets to keep them!
The tail of the common snapping turtle is keeled and long and its neck is long enough that it can easily reach out to bite people who are trying to handle it. This makes lifting them difficult, and the sharp claws of this turtle can also give you a nasty scratch if you’re not careful.
The feet of the common snapping turtle aren’t used as weapons on purpose, thankfully, but are mainly used for digging. Still, you could get scratched on accident simply by the turtle trying to walk away while you’re lifting them, so always handle these chelonians with extra care!
The carapace (upper shell) of the common snapping turtle is about 11 inches (27.94 cm) in length and its plastron is tiny and barely covers the turtle’s underside.
The carapace grows to 10 to 18.5 inches (25.4 to 46.99 cm) among most individuals, although there are some rare specimens with carapace lengths of up to 20 inches (50.8 cm). The plastron, as mentioned before, is tiny and reaches a length of about 9 inches (22.86 cm).
The weight of the common snapping turtle is 8.8 to 35.2 lb (4 to 16 kilograms), so they’re definitely not lightweights!
Males are larger than females and the largest wild common snapping turtle recorded weighed 75 lb (34 kilograms). Pet common snapping turtles are usually much larger in size, as they are commonly overfed, with one of the largest recorded weighing 86 lbs (39 kilograms).
The common snapping turtle is omnivorous and territorial, and they also tend to be solitary.
The common snapping turtle spends most of its time in an aquatic environment, unlike box turtles which are mostly terrestrial.
Alligator Snapping Turtle
- Family: Chelydridae
- Binomial Nomenclature: Macrochelys Temminckii
- Mass: 154 to 176 lb (70 to 80 kg)
- Carapace Length: 31.1 to 39.8 inches (80 to 101 cm)
- Lifespan: 11 to 45 years in the wild, up to 70 years in captivity
- Conservation Status: G3 (Vulnerable ) on NatureServe Status, Vulnerable on IUCN Red List
The fierce-looking alligator snapping turtle is another snapper commonly kept as a pet and gets it’s name from its crocodilian appearance. Their upper shell (carapace) is a lot spikier than the common snapping turtle’s and definitely impossible to miss.
The alligator snapping turtle, according to the ADW, is also one of the largest freshwater turtles in the world. It has a carapace length that reaches 40 inches (101.6 cm) and it can also reach a mass of 176 lbs (80 kg).
The spiky carapace of the turtle makes it look quite a lot like an Ankylosaurus, which was a plated dinosaur.
You’ll notice three spiky ridges on the back of the alligator snapper and the upper shell is dark in coloration — from black to olive. The carapace is often covered in algae, helping the turtle blend in seamlessly with its aquatic environment.
Nature did this on purpose, as this turtle is an ambush predator!
The upper shell length (carapace length) of the species is 31.1 to 39.8 inches (79 to 101 cm) and the weight of the alligator snapper is 154 to 176 lbs (70 to 80 kg). The largest recorded alligator snapping turtle was a whopping 249 lbs (113 kg) in size!
The alligator snapper wa is endemic to the southeastern United States and you’ll find them in places like east Texas, the Florida panhandle, southeastern Iowa, Kansas, southern Indiana, Missouri, western Illinois, western Kentucky, west Tennesee, and Louisiana.
The alligator snapper is aquatic, just like all other snapping turtles, and only leaves the water to nest or relocate to a new habitat. The species is commonly found in slow-moving freshwater bodies such as shallow creeks, ponds, swamps, oxbows, and sloughs.
If you are planning on keeping one as a pet or already have one, be sure to have a look at this Alligator Snapping Turtle Care Guide to make sure you are doing everything you can to provide a safe environment for them and you.
Central American Snapping Turtle
- Family: Chelydridae
- Binomial Nomenclature: Chelydra Rossignonii
- Carapace Length: 14.6 inches (37 cm)
- Mass: 26.5 lb (12 kg)
- Conservation Status: Vulnerable
The Central American snapping turtle is closely related to the common snapping turtle. In fact, at one time, they were considered to be of the same species. As such, unfortunately, a lot of information was recorded under the species name – Chelydra Serpentina (the scientific name of the common snapper).
The Central American snapper is endemic to Central America – from Mexico to southern Belize and from Honduras to Guatemala.
This snapper is quite large similar to the other snapping turtles. and they are known to reach a carapace length of 14.6 inches (37 cm) and a weight of 26.5 lb (12 kg). This is the recorded length of a female, so the males will likely be larger.
They are black to gray in color with tubercules on their limbs and neck and closely resemble other turtles of the genus Chelydra, including the South American snapping turtle and the common snapping turtle.
Similar to other snappers, the Central American snapping turtle is nocturnal, and does not leave it’s habitat to bask. Instead, they simply bask by floating in the water.
These turtles prefer slow-moving freshwater bodies with muddy bottoms, poor visibility, and a lot of vegetation.
South American Snapping Turtle
- Family: Chelydridae
- Binomial Nomenclature: Chelydra Acutirostris
Another name for the South American snapping turtle is the Ecuadorian snapping turtle.
Sadly, there is little information on the South American snapping turtle. It is endemic from northwestern South America to Central America. The species may also be found in Ecuador, Colombia to Panama, Costa Rica to east Nicaragua, and you’ll also find then in Honduras.
There is little information on their size, but they should be about the same size as other species of the genus Chelydra.
Their carapace is dark in coloration although it is likely lighter in color compared to the central snapping turtle. The limbs and head are also dark in color.
Suwannee Snapping Turtle
- Family: Chelydridae
- Binomial Nomenclature: Macrochelys Suwanniensis
- Conservation Status: G2 (Imperiled) on NatureServe Status
This snapping turtle was once considered to be part of the alligator snapping turtle species, as they are similar in appearance and physique. Unfortunately, there simply isn’t much information that has been collected on this snapping turtle species.
We know that it is endemic to the Suwannee River Basin in Georgia and Florida and that it inhabits swamps and other water bodies connected to the river.
Summary of Differences
- Box turtles reach a weight of 1 about 1.1 pounds (0.5 kg) and a carapace length of 4 to 8 inches. Snappers reach a weight of 8.8 to 176.2 pounds (4 to 80 kilograms) and a length of 11 to 39.8 inches (28.5 cm to 101 cm). Snapping turtles are MUCH bigger.
- Box turtles are generally terrestrial with the exception of the aquatic box turtle, also known as the Coahuilan box turtle. Snapping turtles are aquatic and almost never leave the water — not even to bask. Instead, they bask by floating on the surface, and only leave the water in search of a nesting site or to move to a new aquatic habitat.
- Box turtles can enclose themself entirely in their shell, while the shell of the snapping turtle barely covers its limbs, neck, head, and underside.
- Snapping turtles require an extensive aquatic habitat while box turtles require a moderately sized terrarium, making box turtles much easier to care for.
- Box turtles are turtles of the genus Terrapene. Snapping turtles are turtles of the family Chelydridae.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can box turtles be aggressive?
While box turtles aren’t usually aggressive, they can certainly become so if they feel threatened. Males may also behave aggressively when kept with another male, although this is rare. Box turtles usually tolerate one another well enough to get along.
Box turtle bites may be painful, but they do not lacerate. They are generally harmless and these turtles can usually be handled by adolescents with adult supervision.
Are snapping turtles strong?
Snapping turtles are large turtles and have the requisite strength that comes with size. They have strong bites, for instance, with a bite force of about 209 Newtons, although some have been known to exert a bite force of 656.81 Newtons!
What are Asian box turtles?
The Asian box turtle includes species endemic to the genus Cuora and this includes a whole lot of turtles. A few of these can even be found in the pet trade.
Similar to the American box turtles, the Asian box turtles are also semi-aquatic for the most part, but they are also more difficult to care for as they are endemic to the forested habitats of eastern Asia.
The box turtle and the snapping turtle are two very different turtles. Box turtles, for instance, can enclose themself entirely in their shell, while the snapping turtle doesn’t have this option. In fact, the lower shell (plastron) of this turtle is tiny and barely protects the underside.
The box turtle is also much smaller than the snapping turtle. The alligator snapping turtle is one of the largest freshwater turtles in the world and the largest in North America with a weight of 8.8 to 35.2 to 176.2 pounds (4 to 80 kilograms) and a carapace length of 11 inches to 39.8 inches (28.5 cm to 101 cm).
While the box turtle isn’t a small turtle, it is definitely much smaller than the snapping turtle with a weight of 1.1 pounds (0.5 kg) and a carapace length of 4 to 8 inches.
The snapping turtle also has the strongest bite of the two turtles. When it ‘snaps’, it delivers powerful bites that lacerate and can even amputate a human finger. If a box turtle bites you, you’ll notice it, but it may not even break the skin.
While the box turtle is an excellent first pet reptile, the snapping turtle’s care is much more involved.
We hope that you’ve enjoyed our exploration of the similarities and differences between the Box turtle vs the Snapping turtle and until next time, we wish you and your own turtles the very best!