box turtle

box turtle

box turtle, hard-shelled land turtle of the genus Terrapene, native to North America. Its lower shell, or plastron, has a hinge dividing it into front and rear sections; the animal can raise these sections to meet the upper shell, or carapace, forming a secure box around its body. It is primarily a vegetarian, although it also eats insects, earthworms, and slugs. The box turtle hibernates during cold winters and mates in the spring. In summer the female buries from two to seven eggs, which hatch out in the early fall. The young often remain in the nest until the following spring. The Eastern box turtle, Terrapene carolina, is a woodland species found in the eastern and central United States. The Western species, T. ornata, is found in the grasslands of the central United States and northern Mexico. There are also several rare Mexican species. Box turtles are classified in the phylum Chordata, subphylum Vertebrata, class Reptilia, order Chelonia, family Emydidae.

The box turtle or box tortoise is one of several species of turtle. It can refer to either those of the genera Cuora or Pyxidea, which are the Asian box turtles, or more commonly to species of the genus Terrapene, the North American box turtles. They are largely characterized by having a domed shell, which is hinged at the bottom, allowing the animal to close its shell tightly to escape predators. Otherwise the two genera are very different in habitat, behavior, and appearance, and as such are not even classified in the same family. Even though box turtles have become very popular pets, their needs in captivity are complex and the capture of turtles can have serious detrimental effects on the wild population.

The average life span of box turtles is 40 years. However, it is possible for a box turtle to live for over 100 years.


North American box turtles are omnivores. Their sharp eyes and keen sense of smell help them in finding food such as snails, insects, berries, fungi, slugs, worms, roots, flowers, fish, frogs, salamanders, various rodents, snakes, birds, and eggs. During their first five to six years, the young are primarily carnivorous while they grow. Adults tend to be mostly herbivorous, but they do not eat green leaves. Box turtles have been known to eat road-kill. Babies and young turtles need more protein and prefer a carnivorous diet, and then include more and more plant matter as they get older.


A study by Davidson College revealed that a box turtle snapping its jaw shut can produce sounds as loud as 75 dB. This sound can be used to scare away predators or possibly even be used as a mating call.


While it appears that most Terrapene carolina mating occurs in one-to-one encounters, there are occasions when two males will contend for access to a single female. These encounters consisting of butting, shoving, and perhaps attempting to overturn each other. One of the males eventually becomes exhausted and retires from the field while the other wins access to the female.


Habitat destruction is the biggest problem facing box turtles. Woodlands converted into farmland have reduced the turtles range in many US states. Remaining land is often fragmented with roads and housing projects, breaking up the animals' habitat. As they try to cross manmade additions, turtles are often killed by cars, animals, and other dangers.

A further threat to these animals in North America is the capture and sale of wild-born box turtles. A 3-year study in Texas indicated that over 7,000 box turtles were taken from the wild for commercial trade. A similar study in Louisiana found that in a 41-month period, nearly 30,000 box turtles were taken from the wild for resale. Once captured, turtles are often kept in poor conditions where up to half of them die. Those living long enough to be sold usually suffer from conditions such as malnutrition, dehydration, and infection.

Indiana and other states have laws against collecting the turtles from the wild. In many states, it is illegal to keep them without a permit. Collecting box turtles from the wild may cause irreversible damage in the populations, as these turtles have a low reproduction rate and have a hard time finding a mate.

Most turtle and tortoise societies recommend against box turtles as pets for small children. Box turtles are easily stressed by overhandling and require more care than is generally thought. Box turtles can be easily injured by dogs and cats so special care must be taken to protect them from household pets and neighborhood animals. Box turtles require an outdoor enclosure, consistent exposure to the sun and a varied diet. Without these, a turtle's growth can be stunted and its immune system weakened.

Finding box turtles in the wild and taking them as pets, even for a very short period of time, can have detrimental effects. Box turtles want to stay within the same area where they were born. If one is moved more than a half-mile from its territory, it may never find its way back; but may spend years unsystematically searching. This exposes the animal to danger and also disrupts the breeding cycle.


See Box turtle species



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