Box and snapping turtles are both popular pets, but the two are very different -- not only in appearance, but also in habitat preference, feeding habits and defense mechanisms. For anyone choosing a small pet turtle, understanding the differences, as well as the habitat needs, of each can help narrow down the choices.
As turtles go, the box and snapping turtles are almost opposites when it comes to their shells. Box turtles have a hinged-bottom shell, or plastron, from which they get their name. The hinge allows the shell to close completely once the turtle has drawn his legs, tail and head inside. This is the box turtle's main defense against predators. Snapping turtles, on the other hand, have a small-bottom shell that allows the legs to extend out as far as possible, to increase the animal's speed. A snapping turtle cannot pull his legs, tail or head all the way inside the shell and must rely on other means of defense. In terms of shape, a box turtle's top shell, or carapace, is domed and rounded, while a snapping turtle's is fairly flat with a deep groove down the center.
Box turtles are land turtles, which means that they spend most of their time on land and are not strong swimmers, although they do spend a little bit of time in the water each day. They burrow in the dirt whenever temperatures are too hot or cold. Snapping turtles, on the other hand, are aquatic and spend nearly all of their time in the water. They prefer the water so much that they bask on logs or debris floating in the water rather than on land. Snapping turtles use the water to help control their body temperature by diving deep during weather extremes.
Box turtles are small, with some reaching only about 3.5 inches long. The largest box turtles in the U.S., the Gulf Coast species, are about 7 inches long. They are among the smallest type of turtle frequently kept as a pet. Snapping turtles are often sold at pet shops when they are around 4 inches long, but eventually double or triple that size, often measuring 10 to 12 inches -- although they can grow up to 18 inches.
Box and snapping turtles are both omnivores, but as adults box turtles feed mainly on plant matter while snapping turtles are voracious meat eaters. Young box turtles eat a lot of meat, including fish, bugs, frogs, snails and even dead birds. Once they reach about 5 years of age, they switch over to a diet that includes mostly plants. Snapping turtles use their powerful jaws, for which they are named and known, to capture fish, snakes, snails, crayfish, frogs and other aquatic animals. From the start their diet consists of about two-thirds meat and one-third plant matter, and it remains that way throughout their lives. Snapping turtles can be aggressive hunters.
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