Skip to Content

Spotted Box Turtle

The box turtle (Terrapene) is among the most commonly kept pet turtles. While they are technically pond turtles, they don’t require an aquatic setup. Unlike most tortoises, box turtles don’t grow to be big. This means you don’t require a lot of space to house them.

The spotted box turtle is one such box turtle. Like most species of the genus Terrapene, the spotted turtle is a North American turtle and is mostly found in Central America (specifically Mexico).

The spotted shell and body make this species an attractive specimen. However, these chelonians can be quite difficult to find on the pet market. This rarity makes the spotted box turtle a difficult species to care for as very little is known about their captive husbandry.

Spotted Box Turtle Facts

  • Experience Level: Advanced
  • Family: Emydidae
  • Scientific Name: Terrapene nelsoni
  • Average Adult Size: 5.5 to 6 inches (138 to 152 mm)
  • Average Lifespan: 25 years in captivity
  • Diet: Omnivorous
  • Average Price Range: N/A

Physical Appearance

Northern Spotted Box Turtle
Northern Spotted Box Turtle (Terrapene nelsoni klauberi)

The spotted turtle is known to reach lengths of about 5 to 6 inches. Their weight is similar to that of other box turtles with similar lengths. Expect this reptile to weigh between 400 and 500 grams (14 to 17.6 oz).

This species gets its common name from the bright yellow spots on the shell and skin of the turtle. This makes the turtle stand out. Females are usually more spotted than males. In fact, males may not even have spots.

This species has a less domed carapace than other box turtle species such as the common box turtle. Their carapace is dark brown and the keel is not prominent.

Natural Habitat & Geographic Range

Terrapene nelsoni can be found in North America especially in northwestern Mexico in places such as Nayarit, Sonora, Sinaloa, and even Jalisco & Chihuahua.

The two subspecies are the southern spotted box Turtle (T. n. nelsoni), which are endemic to the southern part of the species’ geographic range but southern Sinaloa, Jalisco, and Nayarit; and the northern spotted box turtle (T. n. klauberi), which are endemic to the northern part of the species’ geographic range but northern Sinaloa, Chihuahua, and Sonora.

Although the Terrapene nelsoni is a pond turtle, these don’t live in water bodies as other pond turtles do. Wild populations have been found in tropical short tree forests as well as oak & tropical thorn woodlands. They have been found in desert scrubs.

These turtles are found throughout the Sierra Madre Occidental where the summer monsoons provide the turtle with all the water and humidity they require to be active.


The longest living specimen was at least 27 years as of 2011. This specimen is cared for at the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson, Arizona. Since this specimen had been in captivity for some time before finally ending up at the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum (ASDM), she may be much older.

While very little is known of the lifespan of these turtles in the wild, box turtles have been known to live to 100 years.

These turtles are quite rare to find on the pet trade as they aren’t commercially bred. Pet specimens would most likely be wild caught.


Just as with all other box turtles, this species is omnivorous, eating a variety of foods. Since very little is known about the wild behaviors of this species, it is safe to assume that they do eat foods similar to that of other box turtles. The only food that Terrapene nelsoni has been observed eating in the wild is Stenocereus thurberi (the organ pipe cactus) – a plant native to Mexico and the United States.

In captivity, these turtles have been known to eat small rodents such as mice, nightcrawlers, crickets, kale, cilantro, and parsley.


Box turtles have several predators such as birds of prey and other carnivorous/omnivorous mammals such as coyotes. Reptiles such as snakes are known to prey on the eggs of turtles.

When kept domestically, predators include birds of prey like crows and larger mammals such as raccoons and even dogs.

Reproduction/Box turtles Eggs

Terrapene nelsoni is known to mate and lay eggs during the rainy season. Mating usually happens after drenching rains. The turtle species have been known to lay lays in June and July. hatchlings are believed to emerge in late summer.

 The clutch size is usually 1 to 4 eggs. In contrast, T. o. ornata has a larger clutch size – 3.5 to 4.7 eggs, on average, while T. o. luteola has a smaller clutch size – 2.68 eggs, on average.

Spotted  Box Turtle Care Guide

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

These turtles aren’t commonly kept as pets and information on their care is scarce. However, the species have been successfully housed both indoors and outdoors in isolation from other reptiles.


These turtles are best housed outdoors if the temperatures are right. If you live in a place where temperatures are consistently low, they are best housed indoors.

These turtles require burrows where they seek refuge. Artificial burrows can be created using PVC pipes.

If you are to house these rare turtles, I advise that you find them a large enclosure with dimensions of 8 sqft.


Regulating the temperature within the enclosure is necessary for the health of the turtle. It is necessary to provide a temperature gradient with the warm end having temperatures of 90 degrees and the cool end having temperatures of around 75 degrees.

Try to keep night temperatures above 70 degrees and should not fall below 60 degrees.

When housed outdoors, supplementary heating can be used to provide additional heating especially during the night when temperatures are low.

Heat Lamps

There are several heat lamps to consider and some of these include the Exo Terra Night-Glo Moonlight and the Wuhostam ceramic heat lamp. These bulbs produce little or no light depending on whether it is a ceramic lamp or night lamp.

This little light output means you can have them on even during the night.

An alternative heat lamp choice includes incandescent heat lamps such as the TEKIZOO UVA/UVB Sun Lamp. These need to be turned off during the night.


As with other species of the genus Terrapene, Terrapene nelsoni requires UV light to be healthy and active. UVA encourages activity and activeness, while UVB is needed to synthesize vitamin D3. without vitamin D3, calcium absorption is very low.

One source of UV light is the sun which produces the full ultraviolet light spectrum. When housed outside, a UV lamp may not be needed.

There are two types of UV lamps to choose from, and these include mercury vapor lamps such as the TEKIZOO UVA/UVB Sun Lamp. This produces both heat and white light which includes UV.

The other includes fluorescent lamps which produce white light (and UV light) but almost no heat. An excellent UV lamp for turtles is the  Reptisun 10.0 T5 lamp.

The light lamp needs to be on for only 10 to 12 hours a day. This is to mimic the day-night cycle of the sun. If you don’t think you can switch the lamps on and off each day, you can use a programmable timer such as the  BN-LINK 7 Day Heavy Duty Digital Programmable Timer.

Regularly changing the lamp is important to maintaining the right temperatures and UV levels. Rule of thumb, change the bulbs every 6 months. UV testers such as the ReptiZoo UVB Tester Cards.


There are many different types of substrate to use for this turtle some include earth, eco earth, reptile carpet, coco coir, coco husk, sphagnum moss, coco chips, and aspen shaving.

Water & Humidity

As with other box turtles, Terrapene nelsoni require high humidity levels. Provide the chelonian with a water bowl large enough for the turtle to climb into and relax. Change the water in the bowl daily.

Use water that doesn’t contain chlorine as this can irritate the turtle. Mineral water doesn’t contain chlorine and is a good choice. Also, allowing tap water to sit for 48 hours removes the chlorine in it.

Feeding the Spotted  Box Turtle

Box turtles eat many different foods. As they are omnivorous, they eat plants as well as animals. In captivity, they are known to eat mice, nightcrawlers, crickets, kale, cilantro, and parsley in captivity.

Breeding and Availability

These turtles are yet to be successfully bred. Efforts to breed the species in captivity have all failed.

When these turtles have appeared on the pet market, they have always been wild-caught.

Health Problems

Little has been documented on the health issues of the species. Wild-caught specimens have harbored parasites thatwild-caught have always been successfully treated.

Parasitic infection – All captive spotted turtles harbored parasites in particular flagellates. These parasites are innocuous in small numbers but in large numbers, they can cause intestinal issues such as diarrhea, passing of undigested food, weight loss, and dehydration. These parasites can only be treated by a vet. Flagellate infestation is treated using metronidazole.

Metabolic bone disease – This is caused by nutrient deficiency in particular vitamin D3 and calcium. This nutrient deficiency can lead to metabolic bone disease. Symptoms include lumpy and deformed shells and deformed limbs. When caused early, the effects can be corrected by correcting the turtle’s diet and increasing humidity levels within the enclosure.

Respiratory infections – Respiratory infections are usually caused by vitamin A deficiency and low humidity levels. Proper husbandry and a balanced diet minimize the risk of respiratory infections. Some symptoms of respiratory infections are inactivity, loss of appetite, wheezing, and difficulty breathing.

Signs that your turtle requires medical attention include lethargy, swelling of ears, nasty discharges, weight loss, refusal to eat, diarrhea, and a significant change in behavior and/or routine.


Spotted box turtles have not been evaluated yet. As such, conservation status and threats facing the species are unknown.


How long do spotted box turtles live?

The oldest captive specimen is over 27 years old. Other wild-caught specimens have survived in captivity for 6 years, 5.5 years, 3 years, and 3 months.

The lifespan of these turtles in the wild is unknown.

Are spotted box turtles good pets?

Because little is known on how to care for these turtles in captivity, it is not advisable to keep these turtles as pets. The track record so far is not promising, with most wild-caught individuals living short lives in captivity.

Where is the spotted box turtle found?

Terrapene nelsoni is endemic to Mexico and has been found in five states: Sonora (where they are most common), Sinaloa, Nayarit, Jalisco, and Chihuahua.

Both subspecies are native to a few locations in the Sierra Madre Occidental in Mexico. Terrapene nelsoni nelsoni is endemic to the south part of the turtle’s geographic range, and Terrapene nelsoni klauberi is endemic to the northern part of the geographic range.

What eats the spotted box turtle?

These pond turtles are omnivorous. As such they eat a wide variety of foods, they have been known to eat Stenocereus thurberi (the organ pipe cacti),  mice, nightcrawlers, crickets, kale, cilantro, and parsley.

How big do spotted box turtles get?

This chelonian isn’t a big turtle. They reach a moderate carapace length of 5 to 6 inches. And a weight of about 450 grams.

Are spotted box turtles dangerous?

These aren’t dangerous turtles. They are only dangerous to insects, and small rodents such as mice. But to humans, these reptiles are not dangerous.

How many eggs does the female spotted box lay?

Gravid females lay 1 to 4 oviducal eggs with dimensions of 4.7 x 2.7 cm.


The spotted box turtle is one of the rarest box turtles on the planet, if not the rarest. Little is known about this turtle in the wild. Most of the information on this turtle is gathered through studying a handful of captive specimens.

There are two subspecies within this species and these include the T. n. nelsoni – southern spotted box turtle and the T. n. klauberi – northern spotted box turtle. The southern spotted turtle is endemic to the part of the southern geographic range  while the northern spotted turtle is endemic to the northern part of the geographic range.

These turtles are endemic to western Mexico, in particular a few localities in the Sierra Madre Occidental. Wild populations can be found in Sinaloa, Sonora, Jalisco and Chihuahua.

The Terrapene nelsoni is quite long-lived, with the oldest known individual being over 27 years old.

All comments about the spotted box turtle are welcomed.

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

Sharing is caring!