Frequently Asked Questions

1. Eastern box turtles are located in what areas and regions of North America?

There are four subspecies of eastern box turtles, the Florida box turtle, Gulf Coast box turtle, and Three-Toed box turtle, and the eastern box turtle; however, the eastern box turtle covers the largest range out of the four different subspecies. They inhabit about thirty states and can be found as north as southern Ontario and southern Maine and their range extends to the Gulf Coast and into the Midwest of the United States. There are even some isolated populations that have been found in the Yucatan Peninsula and in eastern Mexico. The eastern box turtle is actually the state reptile of North Carolina.

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Range of Eastern box turtles in the United States

2. What does a box turtle’s “house” look like?
Box turtles are very flexible animals when it comes to their habitat. They can be found anywhere from dry, grassy fields to wooded swamps. However, they prefer to live in a moist wooded area with a lot of underbrush. Underbrush is essential because of their need to hibernate in the winter and hide themselves from predators. They will also often venture to the edges of small ponds, streams or pools, even though they are not aquatic.
3. Do box turtles have territories?
Box turtles have home ranges, not territories. The main difference lies in the fact that box turtles do not defend their home ranges. These home ranges usually have a diameter of around 750 feet, and box turtles tend to stay in the vicinity of their home range, though occasionally they will journey out (males usually to find a mate and females to lay their eggs). Regardless of age or sex, home ranges of individuals tend to overlap, and turtles that share a home range have not been shown to be antagonistic towards each other.

4. How have box turtles adapted to their surroundings?
Since box turtles have a strong internal instinct to return to their original home ranges, it is difficult for them to adapt to a new area or habitat. The box turtle would also be very familiar with the physical aspects of its environment and would have to learn all landmarks etc. in its new environment. A study showed that box turtles are able to navigate around their home range based on landmarks such as large trees or unique rocks. Evolutionary wise box turtles have eyes at the front of their head, as opposed to the side, which help them to see further away. Also, they have a sharp beak and a shell that can regenerate. This shows that over centuries, box turtles have been able to adapt to their surroundings and additionally are evolutionarily competitive with other organisms.

5. What are the physical characteristics of the box turtle?
Terrapene carolina carolina, or the common eastern box turtle, is usually between 4 to 8 inches long. The carapace, the dorsal (upper) section of the shell is high, dome-shaped, and usually dark brown, with blotches and patterns in colors ranging from red to orange to yellow to cream. Their plastron, the belly or the almost flat part of the turtle shell, is hinged, allowing the box turtle to completely withdraw into its shell. Typically, adults have a sharply defined upper jaw and slightly webbed feet, and males have red irises while females have yellow-brown irises.

6. How does one sex a box turtle?
There are several very distinct physical differences between male box turtles and female box turtles. For example, the carapace of the female box turtle has a higher dome than that of the male box turtle, and the female’s tail is also shorter and more narrow. In addition, males have a plastron that is concave in order to make mounting the female easier during copulation; they also have curved hind claws in order to hook onto the female’s shell. Lastly, male box turtles have red irises, while females have yellow-brown irises.

male vs female shell shape.jpg
Female is on the right, male is on the left

7. What can you tell about a turtle based upon the top of its shell?
In general, a turtle’s shell can give a hint about what type of turtle it is. Eastern box turtles have a hard ridged shell texture that gives away their identity. The sex of the turtle can be determined by simply looking at the shell. Males have more flattened shells than females. Also, the age of the box turtle can be estimated by its shell by counting the rings on the scutes, which are the plates, on the turtle’s carapace, or the top of the shell. However, as the turtles get older, the rings become harder to see, so the ages are often estimated.

8. Does a box turtle's shell grow larger in size?
The box turtle's shell is the most noticeable part of this reptile. The shell slowly grows, as the turtle develops. The outside part of the shell is covered by large scales that are very hard, called scutes. The actual number of scutes on a box turtle's shell is pre-set and does not change. What changes is the actual size of each scute. Since most box turtles do not loose all their scutes, as a result of shedding, new scutes are grown under the old scutes. The layers of scutes help to determine the age of the box turtles.

9. What is the typical diet of a box turtle?
Adult and young box turtles will eat almost anything, as they are omnivores. They are relatively indiscriminate when it comes to their diet; they eat both plants and animals, like most humans. They will eat almost any fruit or berry, flowers, an assortment of vegetables, virtually any insect or bug (though they particularly enjoy worms and slugs), frogs, salamanders, even carrion. Typically whatever they can catch, they will eat. In addition, box turtles eat mushrooms, including some that are poisonous to humans, but safe to eat for a box turtle (for this reason, humans should not consume box turtles).

10. How does a box turtle’s stress level affect its eating habits?
As expected, when box turtles are stressed, they tend to not eat as much. Additionally, when adapting to a new environment, turtles do not eat as frequently as they should (which is every other day for adults). Less-than-ideal temperatures or climate can also cause a turtle to not want to eat. When it comes to the overall population, if one observes a turtle being placed into a new environment or adapting to new surroundings, its eating patterns may change or overall decrease.

11. How have box turtles been featured in culture and history?The turtle is a totem animal in Native American society, and tribes were known to highly prize turtles, as their hard shell symbolized strength, protection, and perseverance. Turtles were commonly known as the oldest symbol of Mother Earth, representing longevity in Native American culture, as well as stability, self-reliance, and patience. Box turtles played a role in Native American life for medicinal, ceremonial, and burial purposes, and have generally been revered as a gentle and wise creature in Native American culture. Also, in mythology, a common story was of a turtle that carried the whole world on its shell.

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The myth of the "World Turtle"

12. What is the mating procedure for box turtles?The typical window of time when box turtles mate begins in spring and continues on through October. Box turtles are polygynandrous, which means a female can mate with several different males, who in turn mate with several different females. Males initiate the courtship phase through a “circling, biting, and shoving” phase; after this comes the mounting phase, followed by copulation. (Male box turtles sometimes fall backwards after copulation). After mating, female box turtles can store sperm for up to four years, and as a result, they do not have to mate every year.

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The "mounting phase"

13. What determines the sex of a box turtle?The sex of a box turtle is determined by the temperature of the egg as it develops. Depending on the species, a box turtle, whose eggs develop at 77 degrees Fahrenheit, will become a male box turtle.If the temperature is higher or lower than 77 degrees Fahrenheit, the egg will develop into a female box turtle. Interestingly, in the wild, the eggs on top of the nest are warmer and therefore, there is an increased probability that female box turtles will be produced.The eggs on the bottom of the nest are cooler and therefore, an increased probability that male box turtles will be produced.

14. How do female box turtles lay their eggs?
Typically in summertime, females will lay anywhere from 3 to 8 eggs in a nest started at twilight and finished throughout the night. Females dig these nests in sandy or loamy soil using their hind legs. After laying the eggs, the nest is covered back up, and incubation usually lasts around three months, although this time will vary according to the temperature and moisture of the soil. Sex determination of the offspring, as with many other reptiles, is dependent upon temperature and not upon genetics.

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15. What is the typical hibernation process for box turtles?
In early fall, box turtles typically begin to search for a place to hibernate during the harsher winter months. When box turtles are ready for hibernation, they typically become slow and lethargic, and attempt to burrow into the ground; usually this begins to occur anywhere from mid-September to mid-October, or even later in the winter. They tend to search for areas of soft dirt, loose earth, mud, or old stump holes; at times they burrow down as far as two feet. Usually in April, as the weather becomes warmer, box turtles begin to emerge from their burrows.
16. Why is it necessary for box turtles to hibernate?
For the three to five months during which box turtles hibernate, food is typically scarce and outside temperatures are too low for box turtles to maintain their typical level of activity. During hibernation, physical changes actually occur inside the box turtle: heart rate slows down, digestion stops, and the turtle experiences great difficulty moving or opening its eyes. Studies have shown that hibernation is a necessary physiological process for box turtles; if box turtles do not hibernate, it would throw their reproductive systems (ovulation and spermatogenesis) as well as their immune systems out of balance. One current hypothesis is that hibernation prevents the thyroid gland from becoming damaged, so hibernation essentially replenishes many of the turtle’s vital defense systems.

17. How do box turtles' claws help them?Male turtles typically have longer claws than female box turtles do to help latch themselves onto the female while mating. In general, box turtles have claws in order to help them climb up onto logs and riverbanks. These claws also are worn down as they scavenge for food and continue to grow back. If they are not worn down as often as they grow back, they may become ingrown, which can lead to infection.

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18. How do box turtles regulate their body temperature?
The temperature of the environment typically determines how active a box turtle is. Obviously, turtles hibernate during the colder months and are more active during the warmer months respectively. A box turtles’ preferred body temperature is between 84-100 degrees Fahrenheit. When it gets too hot in the summer, box turtles tend to hide in decaying logs, and in piles of leaves. In extreme heat they can go into pools and shady wet areas.

19. Why do box turtles burrow into the ground?
Burrowing into soil or dirt makes box turtles feel more secure. They also burrow in moist rotten logs in order to stay hydrated for longer periods of time, as becoming dehydrated can damage many of the box turtle's internal functions. If they are in dry air for too-long periods of time they can get dry eyes that are extremely difficult to open and even develop respiratory problems. Also in order to stay hydrated, turtles become very active when it is raining and less active when it is very dry outside. Turtles tend to burrow into the ground especially during hibernation, where they need to stay protected from both the outside environment as well as potential predators for up to three to five months.

20. How is radio-telemetry useful?
Telemetry is the process during which data is collected at remote points and then transferred to equipment for monitoring. In addition to tracking turtles, radio-telemetry has been useful ever since the 1800s when it was first introduced. Today there is wireless radio-telemetry that has been used to transmit meteorological data, drilling mechanics information in the oil industry, and even spacecraft data. Additionally, radio-telemetry has aided in the transmission of soil data to help in agriculture and has been used medicine by observing any abnormal human heart activity.

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21. How fast do box turtles travel?
Box turtles seldom walk long distances for long periods of time without stopping. This makes it hard to measure how fast that they can travel in, for instance, an hour. However, research shows that they can travel up to 0.5 to 0.6 miles per hour. In other words, they can travel relatively quickly when they want to, but often do not travel farther than hundreds of yards in a single day. They often travel when it is not sunny and dry in order to prevent dehydration, and stop to take breaks along their way.

22. What is the mobility of the box turtle?
Contrary to popular belief, box turtles can not survive in water full time, as they will drown. This misconception from the general public comes from the fact that most Americans confuse box turtles with their aquatic relatives, the sea turtles. This notion comes primarily from commercial endeavors like Seaworld that showcase turtle-like species in the water. People come away from this experience with these generalizations. Although box turtles are not aquatic animals, they still require a shallow pool of water to soak in for rehydration, waste management, and food sources that come in the form of aquatic plants and invertebrates. Other species of turtles are able to dive into bodies of water, but box turtles can only paddle around shallow water ways.
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23. What human factors pose threats to box turtles?
As more and more rural areas and forests are altered to make room for subdivisions, industrial plants, roads, and highways, box turtle habitats are becoming increasingly fragmented or disappearing altogether. Due to agricultural advances, pollution and pesticides have also been shown to be a factor in the decline of box turtle populations. In addition, one of the biggest threats to box turtles is mortality due to cars or machinery, such as lawnmowers. Lastly, box turtles suffer when removed from their native habitats both to be kept as pets and to be sold into “turtle racing” circles or the international pet trade.

24. What are the details surrounding this "International pet trade"?
In addition to the high mortality rate of box turtles due to habitat fragmentation and automobile accidents, there has also been a large market for the exportation of turtles. Box turtles have been taken out of the wild and distributed to Europe, where there has been enormous demand for box turtles. This demand is due to the fact that box turtles are only native to the United States and Mexico. Box turtles were exported primarily to Spain, Germany, France, Netherlands, Britain, Belgium, Denmark, and Italy. Exports went from 500 box turtles in one shipment in the 80s to 2,000 box turtles in one shipment in the 90s. Louisiana and Texas are the two states that contribute to the majority of the exporting taking place.

25. What are some diseases or other physical problems that affect box turtles?
Like all other animals, box turtles are susceptible to scratches, cuts, and insects such as fleas and ticks. But there are other, more serious health problems that box turtles can face. For example, some turtles suffer from metabolic bone disease (MBD), which causes the turtle’s shell to grow irregularly or lumpily. In addition, the shell can be affected by fungus or bacteria, which causes it to rot when bacteria gets through small cracks in the plastron. Lastly, some turtles will experience organ disease; kidney disease from too much protein in their diet or liver damage from failure of calcium to be absorbed.

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A turtle affected by MBD

26.What other living things pose a threat to box turtles?
Box turtles often suffer from predators, such as dogs, snakes, foxes, skunks, raccoons, and other rodents. Many animals are interested in box turtles because their shells carry a lot of calcium. Turtles can defend themselves from predators by hiding or biting, but their most valuable defense weapon is their shell. The shell of a box turtle gets stronger carapace and plastron, parts of the shell, as the turtle ages, so the smaller and younger turtles are more affected by predation because their shells are not strong enough to protect them.. The shell of an older, larger turtle can hardly be damaged by an animal, even with its teeth. Box turtle nests frequently have a high mortality rate due the same issue. For example, large rodents and raccoons often find a tasty snack in box turtle nests. Additionally as young box turtles, large rodents and other animals can nibble on their shells and even consume the young ones.

27. Are box turtles harmful to humans in any way?
Box turtles are known for their gentle demeanor, and they are not known to bite or harm humans. However, turtles also unknowingly carry harmful diseases, such as the deadly bacteria of salmonella on their outer skin and shell surfaces. But unless the turtle is exposed to open wounds, sores, the eyes, or the mouth, the chances of humans being affected by salmonella are slim. Box turtle fecal matter had been show to carry many different kinds of fungi, some of which are poisonous to humans, and it is for this reason that humans should not consume box turtles. In a combined study from Eastern Illinois University and Indiana State university, fecal samples from 36 turtles yielded a total of 23 different fungal taxa.

28. What can the average person do to help box turtles?
First, do not keep them as pets. Every turtle that is taken from the wild is no longer a turtle that can reproduce, so it reduces the ability of the population to maintain itself. If you do already keep it as a pet, do not release it into the wild because it is not familiar with the area and would probably not survive. Also, do not bother turtles that could be nesting in your yard or garden. Finally, watch out for turtles when you are driving because they often attempt to cross the road. If you can, stop and move them onto the side of the road that they are headed.

29. Are eastern box turtles considered an endangered species?
At this point in time, box turtles are fairly common in their ranges; however, their populations are growing smaller because they have very few young, are slow to grow, and have delayed sexual maturity. Therefore, they are particularly susceptible to human actions. As a result for example, they were put on Connecticut’s List of Endangered, Threatened, and Special Concerned Species in 1998 as a species of special concern. In all other states where it resides, it is of conservation concern.

30. What are some recent efforts that have been made to conserve box turtles and their habitats?
Studies have shown that due to their slow reproductive rate and relatively long lifespan, box turtles typically do not have a birth rate that equals the death rate, meaning that there are not enough young box turtles to replace older ones. As the population balance of box turtles is very precarious, more and more efforts are emerging to protect this species. International trafficking of box turtles now carries a fine of $20,000 and imprisonment. Above all, what conservation groups stress the most is the need for increased public awareness that box turtles should not be taken out of their natural habitat to be kept as pets.