Box turtles, also called terrapins, are terrestrial turtles, but most species require constant access to fresh water. There are two North American species of the genus Terrapene divided into six subspecies: Florida box turtle (Terrapene carolina bauri), Gulf Coast box turtle (Terrapene carolina major), three-toed box turtle (Terrapene carolina triunguis), Eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina) and two ornate or Western box turtles (Terrapene ornata ornata and Terrapene ornata luteola). There are 10 similar but unrelated species of Asian box turtles of the genus Cuora.
Box Turtle Habitat
All Eastern box turtle subspecies live in temperate open woodlands. They prefer habitats such as marshes, meadows and pastures, and must always be near a freshwater source such as a swamp, pond or stream. These turtles don't live in the forest itself, but in more open areas with heavy plant cover and low fruiting plants such as shrubs and brambles. Western box turtles tolerate drier conditions with less cover -- they live in low desert, scrubland and open plains throughout the central and southern U.S. and Mexico. Asian box turtles are more aquatic than North American ones and live primarily in wet forested areas with ponds, lakes, rivers, streams, swamps or marshes. All box turtles are omnivorous and need a wide variety of plant matter, small mammals, amphibians and arthropods. They also eat fungi, including mushrooms poisonous to human beings.
Year of the Turtle
Eastern box turtles mate from around April to around October, then hibernate from around October or November to April. They lay their eggs from May through July. Western box turtles mate in the spring and fall and lay their eggs in the spring. Individuals may or may not hibernate. Females of both species can produce fertile eggs for up to four years after a single mating. Western box turtles can store clutches of eggs inside their bodies for extended periods of time until nesting conditions are ideal.
Box turtle mothers need loose, well-drained but moist, sandy or loamy soil in direct sunlight for their nests. They dig nests and bury their eggs. Each mother lays several clutches, containing an average of five eggs each. Eggs hatch from 70 to 120 days later, depending on air and soil temperatures. Eastern box turtle babies occasionally spend the winter inside their eggs. They may hatch any time of day or night, but hatchlings who emerge on rainy nights are more likely to survive. They must immediately find secluded spots with heavy cover near water and food. Western box turtle hatchlings may remain near their nest sites until the following spring.
Box Turtle Threats
Most box turtle eggs and hatchlings don't make it. They're victim to many predators, including raccoons, skunks, birds, snakes and insects. Fire ants are particularly devastating to nests and baby turtles. Humans, cats, dogs and pigs also take a serious toll. Box turtles are all endangered -- the primary cause is collection for the pet trade. Habitat destruction and fragmentation are a close second, especially from roads, where many young and adult turtles are crushed by vehicles. Herbicides and pesticides used on farmland and lawns have damaged turtle populations, and so has collection of turtles for human food. The rare hatchlings who do make it to adulthood in their natural habitat, and remain there unmolested, can live more than 100 years.
- Smithsonian National Zoological Park: Box Turtle
- Davidson College, Biology Department: Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina)
- Marietta College, Biology Department: Box Turtle Observation Project - Eggs
- With the Grain: How to Improve Native Box Turtle Habitat and Survival
- Desert USA: Western Ornate Box Turtle (Terrapene ornata)
- Arkive: South Asian Box Turtle
Angela Libal began writing professionally in 2005. She has published several books, specializing in zoology and animal husbandry. Libal holds a degree in behavioral science: animal science from Moorpark College, a Bachelor of Arts from Sarah Lawrence College and is a graduate student in cryptozoology.