Identifying the turtle you came across during your weekend hike can be fairly easy if you paid attention to his size, shape and coloring. If the little fellow you came across sported an orange-and-black pattern on his shell, chances are he's an eastern box turtle.
Box Turtle Parts
One of the neat things about a turtle is his ability to retract his head and limbs into his hard shell for protection. The top of the shell is the carapace, a dome formed by the turtle's ribs and back bones. The bottom part of the shell is the plastron. The box turtle's plastron is connected to the carapace and has a hinge that acts as a drawbridge. If the turtle feels threatened, he can withdraw his head and limbs, close the hinge and form a self-contained, safe box.
The eastern box turtle doesn't have to be orange-and-black on his carapace and plastron. He may also look yellow, olive green or brown, and the pattern on the top of his shell may be spots, radiating lines or blotches. His skin is typically brown with yellow spots or streaks, though he may also have purple, orange or white marks; youngsters tend to be brighter in color than adults. The eastern box turtle's carapace has a high, domed shape ,and his shell runs between 4 and 7 inches long.
Ladies or Gentlemen
If you paid close attention, you can figure out if you saw Mr. or Mrs. box turtle on your outing. A male eastern box turtle will usually have red eyes, while his lady friend will most often have brown eyes. The male's plastron is concave and the female's is flat. Tale length is different, too; the lady's is shorter than the gentleman's, and her hind claws tend to be straight and slender, compared with the male's thick and curving hind claws.
Life for the Eastern Box Turtle
This fellow's adaptability allows him to live in a wide variety of habitats, ranging from forests to grassy fields to wooded swamps. He thrives in moist forested areas and enjoys spending some time in the shallow water of streams, puddles and ponds. He's not a picky eater, dining on fruits and berries, insects, plant matter and even dead animals. If home is in a cold region, he'll hibernate in the winter, digging up to 2 feet deep in loose soil to spend the winter. If all goes well for this guy, he'll have a long life. The eastern box turtle can expect to celebrate at least 30 birthdays; some specimens have seen 50. Since he's slow to mature, it takes a long time for this turtle to reproduce. Taking one of these turtles from the wild to make a pet can have a significant impact on populations of eastern box turtles and so is discouraged.
The eastern box turtle is likely the guy you saw when you were out if he had orange-and-black markings, but a few other turtles have some orange and black, or may be close enough in coloring to consider. The painted turtle's carapace is black or green-brown with red and yellow markings on the shell. His skin is olive-green to black, his head and legs sporting yellow or red lines. The spotted turtle is a small fellow with a dark carapace dotted with small yellow or cream spots.