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Gulf Coast Box Turtle

The Gulf Coast box turtle is native to the Gulf of Mexico and can also be found from Florida to Louisiana. This box turtle’s name is derived from its native range. Box turtles are so-called since they can completely close off their shells.

These pond turtles are a subspecies of the Terrapene carolina (common box turtles). They can be commonly found near water bodies and in humid areas such as swamps and marshes.

When compared to other subspecies of Terrapene carolina, the Gulf Coast box turtle is relatively harder to keep and is not recommend for beginners.

Gulf Coast Box Turtle Facts

  • Experience Level: Intermediate
  • Family: Emydidae
  • Scientific Name: Terrapene carolina major
  • Average Adult Size: 7 inches (177 mm)
  • Average Lifespan: 40 years in captivity, 100 years in the wild
  • Diet: Omnivorous
  • Average Price Range: $120 to $400
  • Where to buy: Tortoisetown.com, Cbreptile.com

Physical Appearance

Gulf Coast Box Turtle on grass (Terrapene_carolina_major)
Gulf Coast Box Turtle on grass (Terrapene_carolina_major)

T. c. major is the largest box turtle (T. carolina) with a carapace length of up to 8 inches. For a turtle, this is quite large.  The shell color of this turtle is black or dark brown with yellow marking.

Just like other box turtles, the Gulf Coast box turtle has a highly domed & rounded carapace.

Males are a bit larger than females are. Males also have longer and thicker tails. Females on the other hand have longer and straighter rear claws.

Natural Habitat & Geographical Range

T. c. major is endemic to the Gulf of Mexico. They can be found from Louisiana to Florida. While more terrestrial than aquatic, they still prefer to be near water as they require high consistent humidity levels.

When found in nature, this turtle is usually found in swamps and marshes. They also prefer shallow waters to deep waters and need a consistent supply of water all year long.

As previously mentioned, these reptiles aren’t exactly aquatic, however, they can swim in shallow waters. They are generally referred to as semi-aquatic or terrestrial.

They hibernate or brumate when temperatures are low enough. However, in places like Florida where the weather is generally warm all year, they don’t hibernate.

Lifespan

Determining the lifespan of turtles such as the Gulf Coast box turtle can be difficult as they live very long. In the wild, these turtles are believed to live up to 138 years old. The typical lifespan of a wild box turtle is around 100 years.

In captivity, however,  they are believed to live to 40 years. This number could be down to a lack of data. A 100-year-old captive specimen would have been born in the 1920s. Being able to track such a specimen would be difficult.

Regardless, if you do adopt, know that these chelonians can live over 100 years.

Diet

Gulf Coast Box Turtle in the woods walking (Terrapene carolina major)
Gulf Coast Box Turtle in the woods walking (Terrapene carolina major)

They are omnivorous. In the wild, they eat a wide variety of foods such as eggs, birds, snakes, salamander, frogs, fish, flowers, roots, berries, worms, insects, slugs, snails, and fungi. They aren’t picky eaters and would eat whatever is available including carrion such as dead mammals, amphibians, and birds.

While omnivorous, these turtles are mainly carnivorous when young, from age 0 to 6. Adults are mainly herbivorous although they don’t like green leaves.

In captivity, they accept live insects such as mealworms, and fruits.

Predators

Animals that kill box turtles include birds of prey such as ravens and crows, snakes, large rodents, raccoons, skunks, and minks. Dogs are also known to attack and kill box turtles.

Regardless of their tough shells, dogs’ jaws and teeth are strong enough to cause serious harm and even death. This is especially true of young box turtles that are yet to mature.

Keep dogs away from box turtles.

Reproduction/Box turtles Eggs

Box turtles including the Gulf Coast box turtle start mating during Spring and stop mating in Fall (around October). Gravid females can lay fertile eggs even four years after mating. they nest from May to July. Gravid females lay eggs in sand/loamy soil.

They usually lay 4 to 5 eggs although they can lay as many as 8 or as few as 3 eggs.  Incubation takes about 60 to 80 days and at a temperature of about 84 degrees Fahrenheit.

A temperature of  77 degrees Fahrenheit (22 degrees C) to 81 degrees Fahrenheit (27 degrees C) leads to mostly male hatchlings while a temperature above 82 degrees Fahrenheit (28 degrees C) leads to mostly female hatchlings.

Gulf Coast Box Turtle Care Guide

Gulf coast box turtle exploring in the woods (Terrapene carolina major)
Gulf coast box turtle exploring in the woods (Terrapene carolina major)

These are the largest box turtles and require the largest enclosure out of all the box turtles. These turtles can live by ponds if you have one. However, a pond isn’t needed to keep them. I don’t recommend building a pond just to house a gulf coast box turtle but if you want to and can that is a plus.

Specimens can be housed in pens or even a tortoise table. Because of their large nature, adults are best housed outside.

Housing

They are best housed in outdoor pens as mentioned earlier See our box turtle setup guide for more.. Juveniles and hatchlings can be kept indoors. When housed outside, the temperature range should match that of its geographic range which is from Florida to Eastern Texas, along the Gulf Coast.

The enclosure should have a length of at least 8 feet and a width of at least 4 feet. You can go lower but these dimensions are best. To ensure that the enclosure escape-proof, the walls should be about a foot high and a foot deep into the earth. This prevents them from climbing out or digging under the walls. Cinder blocks placed in the ground around the enclosure will discourage the turtle from digging out.

As mentioned, T. c. major prefers to live near water bodies. While you don’t have to build a pond for the turtle, you must provide a large water dish. This dish should be large enough to fit the turtle, but not deep enough that it risks drowning. The turtle should be able to enter and leave the water dish easily.

Temperatures

The high temperatures of this enclosure need to be 95 F or higher. The low temperatures of the enclosure should be around the low 80s (80 – 83 F).

The enclosure needs both a warm end and a cool end. This allows the turtle to regulate its body temperature by moving between both ends.

The warm end which has a basking spot should have a temperature of 90 degrees Fahrenheit and the cool end should have a temperature of about 80 degrees Fahrenheit. The ambient temperature should be around 80 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit.

Night temperatures should be above 70 degrees Fahrenheit.

Avoid using heat rocks as this can burn the turtle.

Use heat lamps and other heating kits to keep the enclosure heated. Of course, you need to check the temperatures with the enclosure first. If you live within the turtle’s geographic range and you house the turtle outdoors, supplementary heating may need to be kept to a minimum.

Heat Lamps

Heat lamps are the best way to provide warmth. You can go with either a ceramic heat lamp or an incandescent heat lamp.

The heat lamp can be regulated using a thermostat such as the Pymeter Digital Temperature Controller. This ensures that the heat is never too high. The heat lamps should be over the basking spot. An excellent heat lamp is the  Wuhostam ceramic heat lamp.

Lighting

As with other turtles, these species requires ultraviolet light to synthesize vitamin D3 which is important to the health of the turtle. If the turtle is exposed to an adequate amount of sunlight, then there is no need to worry about providing UVB lighting.

If the turtle is kept indoors, then you need to provide some form of UVB lighting. This should be through the use of UVB lamps.

While many prefer to use mercury vapor lamps that provide both UV light and heat, I’m against this as it can lead to overheating since UV light must be on at least 10 hours a day.

I recommend going for the Reptisun 10.0 T5 lamp. This provides ample levels of UVB light. I recommend the T5 tubes over the spiral bulbs as the T5 bulbs provide a better spectrum of UVB.

The UVB light needs to be on for 10 to 12 hours each day. Make sure to keep the lights off during the night.

UV radiation falls over time. Within about 6 months, the UVB lamp won’t be outputting the right amount of UV radiation. Change the bulbs regularly, every 6 months. You can measure UV output using a UV sensor. A simple card sensor such as ReptiZoo UV Sensor should be good enough. These are also quite affordable and an excellent alternative to a handheld electronic UV detector.

Substrates

There are a lot of excellent substrates out there for this species. I recommend substrates that are excellent at retaining moisture. As you already know, these turtles require high humidity levels.

Some excellent substrates include aspen shaving, sphagnum moss, and eco earth.

These substrates are excellent for outdoor enclosures as well as indoor exclosures.

Water & Humidity

They prefer an environment with high humidity. A humidity level of 55 to 80 percent should be high enough. Providing a large water dish is a great way to keep the turtle’s moisture levels up. The turtle needs to soak in water daily.

The water provided has to be free of chlorine. If you use tap water, allow the water to sit for about 48 hours before offering it to the turtle. This ensures that the chlorine dissipates.

When humidity levels are too low, you may see the shell start to turn up around the edges.

Recommended Basic Products

This section should provide you with some of the best basic products to get started with. As time goes on, you’ll be adding to the list. Also, if you live in the turtle’s geographic range you may not need every product on the list. 

Enclosure Size: Outdoor Pen – 8 ft x 4 ft or a 75 to 100-gallon tank

Feeding the Gulf Coast Box Turtle

Gulf Coast Box Turtle looking around (Terrapene carolina major)
Gulf Coast Box Turtle looking around (Terrapene carolina major)

T. c. major are omnivorous although they are more carnivorous when young and more herbivorous when they reach adulthood.

Offer hatchlings and juveniles small insects such as crickets, dubia roaches, mealworms, wax worms, and red worms. They even accept earthworms, caterpillars, snails, slugs, and grubs.

For fruits, you can offer blueberries,  apples, and strawberries. For vegetables and greens, you can offer dandelions, romaine lettuce, duckweed, collard greens, squash, zucchini, and carrots.

Feed the turtle once a day and at the same time every day. Supplement the turtle’s diet of calcium twice a week.

Breeding and Availability

The subspecies is bred regularly. This means that they are easy to find. Mating occurs from Spring to Fall and nesting occurs around June, specifically May to July. Females can carry fertilized eggs for up to four years,

Gulf Coast box turtles can be obtained from box turtle breeders and cost $120 to $400. Prices can be lower or higher than this.

Health Problems

These turtles are generally very healthy and rarely suffer from health issues. Signs that the turtle is unwell include weight loss, dry skin, behavior change (including routine), lethargy, swelling of the ears, nasal discharge, refusal to eat, diarrhea, and abscesses.

Diseases to watch out for include metabolic bone disease which is usually down to lack of vitamin D, calcium, and adequate exposure to UVB, respiratory infections, organ failure, bacteria, and fungal infections and parasites.

Good husbandry can ensure that these health issues are all but eliminated.

First, you need to change the turtle’s water daily. After throwing out the water, clean the dish with a brush and water only. The freshwater should be free of chlorine as that can irritate the turtle.

Remove excrement daily. Spot cleaning is essential to the health of the turtle.

If the turtle is being kept in a tank, you need to scrub down the tank once a month.

Conservation/Threats

While the species – Terrapene carolina (of which T. c. major is a member) isn’t endangered, they are considered Vulnerable, according to the IUCN Red List. Several northern states such as Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Michigan consider the species to be of special concern. In Maine, the species is even considered endangered.

Threats to the species include habitat loss, habitat-related fires, road accidents, and the collection for the pet trade.

FAQ’s

How big do Gulf Coast box turtles get?

These chelonians can get very big. They are the biggest of the box turtles (Terrapene carolina). On average expect this box turtle to grow to have a carapace length of about 6-7 inches although they can grow to be 8 inches.

Due to their large size, these turtles require large enclosures. An outdoor enclosure/pen is best for the turtle. If you must, you can safely house them in a 75 to 100-gallon tank.

What does the Gulf Coast box turtle eat?

So what do Gulf Coast box turtles eat? As omnivorous turtles, they eat a wide variety of foods. What they eat also depends on their age. While hatchlings and juveniles are more carnivorous, adults are more herbivorous.

In the wild, foods these turtles eat include worms, eggs, birds, snakes, frogs, fish, salamanders, snails, and insects. They even eat carrion. They also eat fruits and mushrooms.

In captivity, animal foods they accept are grubs, mealworms, crickets, roaches, earthworms, caterpillars, snails, and slugs.

Vegetables and greens they accept include dandelions, romaine lettuce, duckweed, collard greens, squash, zucchini, and carrots.

Where is the Gulf Coast box turtle found?

These turtles can be found along the Gulf of Mexico, from Louisiana to Florida. They can be found near water bodies and in swamps & marshes.

If you wish to acquire a specimen, a captive-bred is always the way to go as this doesn’t negatively impact the wild populations.

Are Gulf Coast box turtles dangerous?

While they may be dangerous to worms, snails, insects, and other small animals, they are of no danger to humans. They can be poisonous to eat as they feed on mushrooms that are poisonous to humans.

How old do Gulf Coast box turtles get?

These turtles have long lifespans. They are estimated to grow to over 100 years in the wild. In captivity, they are known to grow to 40 years.

Conclusion

The Gulf Coast box turtle is so-called because they are found along the Gulf of Mexico. These turtles are the largest of the box turtles. Box turtles are mostly terrestrial although they still require high humidity levels to be healthy.

When kept in captivity, be sure to provide a lot of moisture and humidity.

Since these turtles are omnivorous, it accepts a wide variety of foods. The hatchlings and juveniles are more carnivorous while the adults are more herbivorous. Feeding and caring for these turtles isn’t difficult.

If you have any extra information about the Gulf Coast box turtle, kindly leave a comment.

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