Skip to Content

Southern Box Turtle

The southern spotted box turtle (Terrapene nelsoni nelsoni) is sometimes referred to as the southern box turtle. The southern box turtle is endemic to the southern part of the spotted box turtle’s geographic range (which is the Sierra Madre Occidental).

While this turtle is highly domed as box turtles generally are, the southern box turtle has a much flatter dome than other box turtles such as the eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina).

Desert and ornate box turtles (T. ornata) are also sometimes referred to as southern box turtles since a large portion of their wild populations can be found in southern North America. 

Southern Box Turtle Facts

  • Experience Level: Advanced
  • Family: Emydidae
  • Scientific Name: Terrapene nelsoni nelsoni
  • Other Names: Southern Spotted Box Turtle
  • Average Adult Size: 6 inches (15 cm)
  • Average Lifespan: 25 years in captivity
  • Diet: Omnivorous
  • Average Price: N/A

Physical Appearance

Southern Spotted Box Turtle (Terrapene nelsoni nelsoni) sitting on the ground
Southern Spotted Box Turtle (Terrapene nelsoni nelsoni) sitting on the ground – source

Terrapene nelsoni nelsoni is the nominotypical subspecies of the spotted box turtle. As any other spotted box turtle, this chelonian has several orange spots on the shell, limbs, and head. These spots make it easy to identify. The shell itself is dark in color, so is the skin/scales.

The turtle grows to a carapace length of 5 to 6 inches and weighs in at about 450 to 500 grams. As you can tell, this is a moderately sized turtle.

Natural Habitat & Geographic Range

T. n. nelsoni is a North American turtle. This turtle is found specifically in Sierra Madre Occidental. The states where this chelonian can be found include Sonora, Sinaloa, Nayarit, Jalisco, and Chihuahua.

The turtle’s wild population is limited to the Pacific versant of the Sierra Madre Occidental (that is the slope that faces the Pacific Ocean) in montane zones where elevation is 1476 ft (450 m) to at least 5281 ft (1640 m).

The southern spotted box turtle is most populous in southern Sinaloa, Jalisco, and Nayarit.


Box turtles generally live for over 25 years. The average lifespan of a captive box turtle is 40 years and the average lifespan of a wild box turtle is 100 years.

Unfortunately, little research has been done on T. n. nelsoni. However, a captive northern spotted box turtle was at least 27 years old in 2011. This turtle was living in the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum.


All box turtles are omnivorous and eat a huge selection of foods including both animals and plants. Box turtles are known to get fungi, insects, small mammals, eggs, and vegetation. In the wild, T. n. nelsoni has been known to eat plants native to Mexico such as organ pipe cactus.


Young box turtles have several predators such as owls, hawks, and other types of birds of prey, foxes, raccoons, opossums, domesticated and wild dogs, and big cats. Adult box turtles on the other hand have few to no predators as their tough shells protect them from most predators.

This chelonian can retract into its shell and enclose almost its entire body within its shell. The shell isn’t just tough, it has amazing regeneration abilities. This allows them to heal from most harm to the shell.


These turtles mate and nest when humidity is high. This is usually after rains and rains are most frequent in the rainy season – this is when the turtle mate and lay eggs. The eggs are laid at the beginning of the rainy season and the hatchlings emerge towards the end of the rainy season when there is abundant food for the hatchlings.

Successfully captive breeding is unknown. By all accounts, T. n. nelsoni hasn’t been bred in captivity successfully.

The southern spotted box turtle lays 1 to 4 eggs, usually 3 eggs. The eggs are elliptical and measure 4.7 x 2.7 cm.

Southern Box Turtle Care Guide

Plastron of Southern Box Turtle (Terrapene nelsoni nelsoni)
Plastron of Southern Box Turtle (Terrapene nelsoni nelsoni) – source

While these turtles have been successfully kept in captivity, most of them didn’t live long with lifespans of 5.5 years (a male), 6 years (another male), 3 months (a female), and finally over 27 years (a female). There may be other specimens that have been kept as pets but this is unknown.

If you are to come across a southern spotted box turtle, this care guide should help you successfully keep them.


Captive specimens of the T. n. nelsoni that have been successfully kept in a captive enclosure had their time split between indoors and outdoors enclosures. The indoor enclosure provides a more controlled environment as you can control access to UV light, warmth, and moisture. However, an outdoor enclosure provides fresh air and more importantly access to sunlight which is the best source of UVB and UVA light.

For turtles kept indoors, heat lamps and UV lights are needed to keep the turtle healthy and thriving.

When kept outside, I recommend building a pen that measures 8 ft x 8 ft. This should be spacious enough for the turtle. The wall around the pen should be about a foot high and a foot deep. This should prevent the turtle from climbing out or burrowing underneath the wall.

As long as the material used to build the walls isn’t toxic to the turtle, it should be adequate. You can use bricks or smooth untreated wood. Wood toxic to turtles includes cedar, wood treated with chemicals, and pine and eucalyptus wood.


It is essential to create a temperature gradient within the enclosure during the daytime. This allows the turtle to regulate its body temperature by moving to zones with varying temperatures. In an outdoor enclosure, you can provide shade.

In an indoor enclosure, you need to have a warm end of the enclosure with temperatures of 90 degrees to 95 degrees, and a cool end with temperatures of about 75 degrees.  The easiest way to have this temperature gradient is to have a large enclosure. The temperatures given should be the daytime temperatures.

During the night, temperatures should be allowed to drop. The only time you need to supplement the warmth within the enclosure at night is when the temperature falls below 70 degrees. This is where the heat lamps of choice are important.

If you use a mercury vapor lamp that produces light, then you will also need to install a night heat lamp or ceramic heat lamp when light temperatures fall below 70 degrees.

The ambient temperature can be in the low 80s.

Heat Lamps

There are three types of heat lamps available for turtles. These include ceramic heat emitters, night lamps, and mercury vapor lamps. I recommend lamps that produce very little visible light. These lamps can be on during the night (when needed).

See our heat lamp guide for more.

Ceramic Heat Emitters

The bulbs are made of ceramic instead of glass. This provides uniform heat. They don’t give off visible light so, you can have them on during the night if temperatures ever drop below 70 degrees.

The wattage of ceramic lamps varies from 50-watts to 150-watts. The larger the enclosure and the farther away the bulb is from the reptile, the higher the wattage needs to be. Most enclosures will benefit from a 100-watts bulb. Use the ceramic heat lamp with a thermostat to avoid overheating.

Night Heat Bulbs

Night bulbs are designed to keep the enclosure warm during the night. If you use a mercury vapor bulb for heat, then you will also need a night heat bulb on cold nights when temperatures are below 70-degrees.

Night lamps also need to be used with a thermostat to prevent overheating.

Mercury Vapor Heat Bulb

These also produce visible light and ultraviolet light including UVB and UVA radiation. With these lamps, you kill two birds with one stone. You provide the reptiles with the needed warmth and the needed UV exposure.

On the other hand, these heat lamps can’t remain on during the night. They should be used in conjunction with night heat lamps when needed.

Thermostat and thermometer

A thermostat is needed to ensure the temperature is within the correct range. Beginners may think a thermostat and thermometer aren’t important since they tell how warm the enclosure is by feeling it. However, this can lead to errors.

Additionally, without a thermostat, the enclosure can overheat when you aren’t around.


The light provided within the enclosure must be UVA/UVB light. You can either go with a fluorescent bulb or a mercury vapor bulb. Mind you, vapor mercury bulbs also produce heat. Do not accidentally overheat your enclosure.

The most reliable UVA/UVB light is the Zoo Med ReptiSun.

A good mercury vapor lamp that produces adequate amounts of UVA and UVB light is  TEKIZOO UVA/UVB Sun Lamp.

The lights need to be on for 10-12 hours each day. After that, the enclosure needs to be dark. Using a programmable timer to turn the lights off and on consistently each day is a good idea. The BN-LINK 7 Day Digital Programmable Timer is a good timer.

Find out more about uvb for turtles with our guide which explains why you need it and how often to replace bulbs.


The substrate you get for this enclosure has to be one good at keeping humidity levels high. The substrate needs to be good at retaining moisture. Some of these include coconut fiber such as Exo Terra Coco Husk and a mix of play sand and topsoil.


Humidity levels need to be quite high. Anywhere between 60 and 80% of relative humidity should be adequate for the turtle. Likewise, you can also mist the enclosure using a spray bottle such as the Nicely Neat Water Mister. This produces a fine mist of water droplets.

Some box turtle keepers also use Reptile Foggers.

Regardless, you need a water bowl, the OMEM Reptile Bowl is a great choice.

Feeding the Southern spotted box turtle

As these are box turtles, they should accept foods fed over box turtles. Here is the food fed the known southern box turtles kept in captivity – plants (90% leafy greens such as kale & 10% cilantro and/or parsley), small rodents such as mice/pinkie mice, nightcrawlers, and crickets.

Breeding and Availability

Captive breeding of this species and subspecies have been unsuccessful so far. Maybe in the future, this turtle will be successfully bred.

The lack of captive-bred specimens means that this turtle isn’t available for purchase. It is best to try and acquire a more popular box turtle such as the three-toed box turtle.

Health Issues

All captive southern box turtles that have been documented harbor parasites in particular flagellates. It is safe to assume that any specimen you would come across will also have parasites. These parasites are innocuous in small numbers but an infestation can be deadly.

Parasites. Parasites such as flagellates can affect all turtles, not just southern spotted box turtles. This parasitic infection is relatively straightforward to treat. However, a veterinarian should be the one to treat it.

Symptoms include passing food that’s undigested, worms in the fecal matter, diarrhea, refusal to eat, and weight loss.

Respiratory Infections. This is generally caused by vitamin A deficiency or low humidity levels. Feed the turtle a lot of leafy greens to prevent vitamin A deficiency, and keep humidity levels above 60% to curb low humidity levels. These infections are best treated by a reptile veterinarian.

Metabolic bone disease. This disease is the bane of all turtle keepers and enthusiasts. In the wild, turtles hardly suffer from this disease. However many captive turtles suffer from nutritional metabolic bone disease. The cause of this disease is vitamin D3 deficiency which is down to inadequate exposure to UVB light. Some turtle keepers supplement turtle’s diets with vitamin D powder to prevent this disease.

Symptoms include spongy feeling shells, disfigured shells, and disfigured limbs. Damage caused by MBD is usually permanent. When caught early, further disfigurement can be prevented.


This species has not been evaluated. Factors that prevent research efforts include the difficulty of maintaining a campsite during the monsoon season especially since the habitats of these turtles are isolated and the fear of Mexican drug cartels which are located within the species’ geographic range.


How long can the southern spotted box turtle live?

Turtles live long and so does the box turtle. The longevity of the southern box turtle is unknown although a member of a subspecies within the same species as the southern box turtle has lived to be over 27 years. As such in captivity, the southern box turtle can live to be over 27 years.

In the wild, it is logical to assume that they can live to be over 100 years since all other box turtles are long-lived as well.

Can you keep the southern spotted box turtle as a pet?

Due to the rarity of these turtles, they are not pet material. They are difficult to breed and the market for these chelonians is very small. As such they are almost impossible to find.

Will they make good pets? Probably. Can you find one as a pet? Most likely not. It is best to select a more common chelonian such as the common box turtle.

Where can the southern spotted box turtle be found?

These can be found in Mexico, in particular the Sierra Madre Occidental. They are found in the montane regions of this highland range. They live in elevations of  450 m (1476 ft) to 1640 m (5381 ft).

States with high wild population numbers include southern parts of Sinaloa, Jalisco, and Nayarit. They can also be found in Chihuahua,  Sonora, and the northern parts of Sinaloa. Their entire geographic range spans around 250 km.

How big does the southern spotted box turtle get?

The southern spotted box turtle isn’t large. It also isn’t a tiny turtle. This subspecies reaches a carapace length of about 6 inches (15 cm). They can also weigh up to 500 grams (17.6 oz). As you can see they are moderately sized.

Is the southern spotted box turtle dangerous?

These turtles aren’t dangerous and rarely ever attack. When picked up and handled, the scared southern box turtle will retrieve into its shell. It isn’t prudent to handle these turtles as this can be very stressful for them. Pick them up only when it is necessary.


Little is known about this turtle and research into the species is difficult. With this in mind, it is unlikely for you to come into possession of this rare turtle. However, if you do, the care guide section of this article should help you care for the turtle.

The southern box turtle can be identified by their geographic range which is southern Sinaloa, Jalisco, and Nayarit, and the spots on their carapace, limbs, and head.

The southern box turtle may also be referred to as T. ornata (commonly referred to as the desert or ornate box turtle which is endemic to southern North America.

Click to rate this post!
[Total: 1 Average: 5]

Sharing is caring!