The Box Turtle (A Species Like No Other)

Box Turtle

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Box Turtle Facts & Information

The Box turtle is one of the best turtles to keep as pets. While there are several box turtle species in existence, the one commonly kept as pets is the eastern box turtle, also known as the common box turtle.

This terrestrial turtle is easy to care and doesn’t require an aquarium. They are easy to feed and hardly ever suffer any health issues.

With the exception of the aquatic box turtle, also known as the Coahuilan box turtle, all box turtles are land-based creatures.

This timid creature is native to both the United States and Mexico, though there is an Asian species of box turtles living in the Eastern region of the globe.

Box turtles are easy-going reptiles whose needs in captivity are highly complex, though this does not stop animal lovers from making them common pets.

Because most wild turtles live in climates that have a wide range of temperatures, they need to hibernate three to five months out of the year in order to stay alive.

During these cold temperature spells, food is not as plentiful and the weather does not permit normal bodily functioning.

It is during this time turtles tuck themselves tightly into their uniquely hatched shells and stay sheltered until spring. While some may assume this is a safe period, it is actually quite dangerous.

These turtles must retain minimal bodily functions: digestion stops, heart rate slows, and eye movement ceases. This period is common for turtle deaths.

Quick Reference Section

  • Experience level: Beginner
  • Family: Emydidae
  • Scientific name: Terrapene spp.
  • Average adult size: 4 to 8 inches
  • Lifespan: 40 years
  • Clutch size: 4 to 5 eggs
  • Egg incubation period: 50 to 70 days
  • Food: Turtle Food, green leafy vegetables, and insects
  • Terrarium size: 70 gallons
  • Average temperature: 85°H/75°L
  • UVB lighting: needed
  • Average price range: $120 to $400
  • Conservation status: Lower Risk – Near Threatened on IUCN Red List (Common box turtle)

Common Box Turtle (includes the Eastern Box Turtle & Three-toed Box Turtle)

Common Box Turtle
Common Box Turtle

Quick Facts

  • Experience Level: Beginner
  • Family: Emydidae
  • Scientific Name: Terrapene carolina
  • Subspecies: Eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina), Three-toed box turtle (Terrapene carolina triunguis), Florida box turtle (Terrapene carolina bauri), and Gulf Coast box turtle (Terrapene carolina major)
  • Average Adult Size: 4 to 7 inches
  • Lifespan: 40 years+
  • Average Price Range: $140 to $350

The common box turtle is probably the most popular box turtle species kept as pets and the species that usually comes to mind when box turtles are mentioned.

The eastern box turtle which is the nominate subspecies is widely kept as pets, and so is the three-toed box turtle.

The common box turtle has a high dome-like carapace and a hooked upper jaw. Common box turtles are generally brownish to black in color with yellowish or orangish patterns of lines and blotches. The three-toed box turtle also has three toes on the back feet.

Coahuilan Box Turtle

Coahuilan-Box-Turtle
Coahuilan Box Turtle

Quick Facts

  • Experience Level: Intermediate
  • Family: Emydidae
  • Scientific Name: Terrapene coahuila
  • Common Names: Coahuilan box turtle, aquatic box turtle
  • Average Adult Size: 4 to 7 inches
  • Lifespan: 50 years+
  • Average Price Range: n/a

The Coahuilan box turtle is the only member of the genus Terrapene (box turtles) that spends almost all its time (90%) in water.

As such, you can say that the Coahuilan box turtle is the only aquatic box turtle. Unsurprisingly, the Coahuilan box turtle is also known as the aquatic box turtle.

The Coahuilan box turtle has dark skin and dark carapace. The plastron is hinged. Like other box turtles, the Coahuilan box turtle can retreat totally into its shell. Sadly the Coahuilan box turtle is an endangered species.

Mexican Box Turtle

Mexican Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina mexicana)
Mexican Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina mexicana)

Quick Facts

  • Experience Level: Beginner
  • Family: Emydidae
  • Scientific Name: Terrapene carolina mexicana or Terrapene mexicana
  • Average Adult Size: 6 to 8 inches
  • Lifespan: up to 100 years
  • Average Price Range: n/a

Very little is known of the Mexican box turtle. In fact, many consider the Mexican box turtle to be a subspecies of the common box turtle.

The Mexican box turtle looks very much like the three-toed box turtle. It has a dark carapace and dark skin. Sometimes, you can find yellow markings on the carapace.

Spotted Box Turtle (includes Northern Spotted Box Turtle & Southern Spotted Box Turtle)

Spotted Box Turtle (Terrapene nelsoni)
Spotted Box Turtle (Terrapene nelsoni)

Quick Facts

  • Experience Level: Beginner
  • Family: Emydidae
  • Scientific Name: Terrapene nelsoni
  • Subspecies: Northern spotted box turtle (T. n. klauberi) & Southern spotted box turtle (T. n. nelsoni)
  • Average Adult Size: 5.5 to 6 inches
  • Lifespan: 50 years+
  • Average Price Range: n/a

The spotted box turtle looks just like the common box turtle, however, the body and shell is spotted with countless dots. These spots give the spotted box turtle its common name.

The species name is Terrapene nelsoni. The specific name is in honor of Edward William Nelson, a great American biologist.

There are two subspecies of the spotted turtle and these include the Northern spotted box turtle (T. n. klauberi), which is endemic to northern Sinaloa, along with Sonora and Chihuahua in Mexico; and the southern spotted turtle (T. n. nelsoni) is endemic to southern Sinaloa as well as Nayarit and Jalisco.

Spotted turtles are rarely kept as pets.

Western Box Turtle (includes Ornate Box Turtle & Desert Box Turtle)

Ornate Box Turtle
Ornate Box Turtle

Quick Facts

  • Experience Level: Beginner
  • Family: Emydidae
  • Scientific Name: Terrapene ornata
  • Subspecies: Ornate box turtle (Terrapene ornata ornata) & Desert box turtle (Terrapene ornata luteola)
  • Average Adult Size: 4 to 7 inches
  • Lifespan: 32 to 37 years
  • Average Price Range: n/a

The western box turtle is a relatively popular turtle. You can find a few of these box turtles as pets. Their shell is much flatter than other box turtles.

They are usually dark brown to black with bright yellow stripes. The desert box turtle has more stripes than the ornate box turtle.

Ornate box turtles can be found in Louisiana, eastern Texas, and western Indiana.

Desert box turtles can be found in northern Mexico, Arizona, New Mexico, and western Texas.

Yucatán Box Turtle

Yucatan Box Turtle (Terrapene yucatana)
Yucatan Box Turtle (Terrapene yucatana)

Quick Facts

  • Experience Level: Beginner
  • Family: Emydidae
  • Scientific Name: Terrapene yucatana
  • Common Names: Yucatán box turtle
  • Average Adult Size: 4 to 6 inches
  • Lifespan: 50 years+
  • Average Price Range: n/a

The Yucatán box turtle is endemic to the Yucatan peninsula. As an endemic species, they can be found in this singular region.

Also, the Yucatán box turtle is a species on its own, it is sometimes treated as a subspecies of the common box turtle.

The shell of this turtle is lightly colored with star-shaped dark spots. Its limbs and heart are also lightly colored.

The Yucatán box turtle is very rare in the United States so don’t expect to find one.

Asian Box Turtles (Includes the Chinese Box Turtle & Malaysian Box Turtle)

Indochinese Box Turtle
Indochinese Box Turtle

Quick Facts

  • Experience Level: Beginner
  • Family: Geoemydidae
  • Scientific Name: Cuora flavomarginata (Chinese Box Turtle), Cuora amboinensis (Malaysian Box Turtle)
  • Common Names: Chinese Box Turtle also known as the Yellow-margined box turtle, shìshéguī, or Golden-headed turtle; Malaysian Box Turtle is also known as The Malayan box turtle, Southeast Asian box turtle, and the domed Malayan box turtle
  • Average Adult Size:
  • Lifespan: 100+ years
  • Average Price Range: $50-75

Asian box turtles belong to the family Geoemydidae and the Genus Cuora which includes 12 species.

This particular species is characterized by the dome of its shell, from low to high. Three kneels on the carapace are usually the markers which are used to distinguish these turtles.

Both the Chinese box turtle and Malaysian box turtle belong to the same family and have similar traits.

These box turtles are known for their hardiness and can make great pets.

Box Turtle Habitat

Most box turtles are terrestrial animals. The common box turtle can be found in moderately moist forest floors. Desert box turtles are native to arid areas.

The aquatic box turtle even prefers an aquatic environment. Regardless of the box turtle, a humidity level of about 60 percent is recommended.

Enclosure

Box turtles are best housed outside as long as the temperature doesn’t fall below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. If you have space I strongly recommend this. Box turtles don’t need a large enclosure to be comfortable.

An enclosure that measures 4ft by 4ft should be a large enclosure for the turtle. The walls of the enclosure should be about 18 inches high with an overhang.

Additionally, the wall should be about 10 inches underground to prevent the turtle from digging out.

The enclosure should have a shallow water dish and several hiding spots (part of the enclosure should be shaded and parts should receive sunlight). It should also protect the turtle from predators such as racoons.

If you are unable to keep the box turtle outdoors all year round get a tortoise table or a terrarium that has a capacity of at least 40 gallons.

You can also improvise. Some owners repurpose sand boxes, large tubs, and even plastic kiddie pools into indoor box turtle enclosures.

Substrate

Because the enclosure needs to be moderately humid, use a substrate that retains moisture well. I recommend an equal mix of sphagnum moss, peat moss, and dampened topsoil.

Other substrate choices include coco coir, eco earth and even aspen shaving. The substrate should be about 4 inches deep.

Some turtle keepers recommend that you avoid sand or any gritty material as it can cause intestinal impaction.

Temperature

If you are housing them indoors, you need to provide both a uvb source and a heat source.

The Zoo Med Aquatic Turtle UVB & Heat Lighting Kit is a great choice since it has the capability to house dual bulbs covering both heating and UVB and it includes the bulbs in the purchase.

The temperature of the basking area should be around 85 to 90 F, while the cool end of the enclosure should have a temperature of about 70 F.

As you can see, the enclosure needs to be large for this temperature gradient to be created.

Consider installing thermometers at both the cool end and the warm end to monitor the temperatures within the enclosure.

Similarly, you can use a single thermometer to check the temperature regularly. This is very important if it’s your first time caring for a turtle.

Lighting

Sunlight is the best source of light for the turtle, but for when the box turtle is housed indoors, you need to provide uvb lights for the turtle.

As mentioned above the Zoo Med Aquatic Turtle UVB & Heat Lighting Kit is a great fit for that.

The lights should be on for no more than 10-12 hours a day. You can use a timer to manage that as well.

Humidity

As already mentioned, the turtle requires a humidity level of about 60 percent.

Use a humidity gauge such as the  ThermoPro TP50 Digital Hygrometer to monitor the humidity. Also mist the enclosure with potable chloride free water twice to thrice a day.

You can do that manually of get a misting system.

Feeding The Box Turtle

Box turtles are omnivores and eat a mix of plants and meat. When kept outside they will even forage for food. Having some edible plants in the enclosure provides both nourishment and shade.

The box turtle diet needs to be 60 percent animal protein and 40 percent plant matter. Feed them vegetables, fruits, insects and low fat meat. You can also give them commercial turtle diets in addition to fresh food.

Vegetables to feed them include collard greens, dandelion greens, romaine lettuce, flowers. Duckweed and many others.

Fruits to feed them include pears, apples, raspberries, strawberries, and blueberries. Offer fruits once a week.

Animal proteins to feed them include crickets, grubs, mealworms, superworms, earthworms, roaches, canned snails, 93% lean meat, and pinky mice.

Feed the turtle daily. Provide as much as it can eat. Over time, you will get to know exactly how much they eat. Feed them on plates or other clean surfaces free of debris so they don’t ingest debris.

Always provide a shallow box of clean water at all times.

Box Turtle’s Temperament & Handling

Box turtles are docile and easy to hold. They don’t bite and are much more tolerable than other turtles. However, it is still best to handle them only when it is necessary.

Frequent handling can stress them out. Feeding time is also one of the best ways to bond with box turtles. Most box turtles can recognize their keepers over time.

Box Turtle’s Lifespan

Box turtles have very long lifespan. When properly cared for, they can live to be about 40. In the wild, it is believed that some box turtles can live to be over a 100.

Common Health Concerns

Box turtles are capable creatures that can go most of their entire life free of any serious health complications.

Metabolic bone disease – this is caused by underexposure to uvb light and/or vitamin D and calcium deficiency. Metabolic bone disease is characterized by misshapen limbs and shells.

This disease can lead to death.

Respiratory infections – This usually caused by insufficient humidity or vitamin A deficiency.

To prevent respiratory infections, feed box turtles a wide variety of green leafy vegetables (don’t feed them iceberg lettuce), and ensure humidity levels in the enclosure are right.

Signs of a respiratory infection include lack of appetite, difficulty breathing, lethargy and presence mucus from the mouth and nose.

Shell rot  – Another common affliction is shell rot. The shell may appear cracked or dey and emits a bad smell. This is usually caused by inadequate heating.

Signs that generally show that your turtle is unwell include blisters and sores, foul-smelling mouth with thick mucus, loss of appetite, cuts and bruises,  swollen unclear eyes, and unresponsiveness.

Pricing and Availability

Most box turtle species are hard to come by. The most common species sold as pets is the common box turtle whose subspecies include the Eastern box turtle (T. c. carolina), the Three-toed box turtle (T. c. triunguis), and the Florida box turtle (T. c. bauri), and Gulf Coast box turtle (T. c. major).

Here are some reputable online stores that offer Box turtles – Backwater Reptiles, CB Reptiles, LLLReptile, and tortoise town.

Conservation/Threats

Most box turtles are not endangered. The aquatic box turtle (Terrapene coahuila)  is the only endangered box turtle. This is due destruction or modification of their natural habitat.

This is caused by residential & commercial development, agriculture & aquaculture, construction of roads & railroads, shipping lanes and natural system modifications (dams & water management/use).

The aquatic box turtle is included in CITES Appendix I and protected under  Mexican wildlife and natural resource legislation.

Conclusion

There are many species of box turtles and all but one are land-based turtles. This is odd as pond turtles are generally aquatic or semi aquatic.

The most popular box turtles include the eastern box turtle, the three-toed box turtle and the desert box turtle.

If you are looking to adapt, the easiest to obtain is the eastern box turtle and the three-toed box turtle.

Caring for box turtles is much simpler than caring for many other turtles as box turtles do not require an aquatic setup. If you have any questions or information, leave a comment.

About the author

Brock Yates

Brock Yates has a passion for educating people about turtles & tortoises. He manages several websites and has a goal of getting everyone the best and most accurate information to help them with their turtle & tortoise care.

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