Box turtle, three-toed box turtle, eastern box turtle, gulf coast box turtle, ornate box turtle, desert box turtle.
Size and Appearance
Box turtles are named so because they have a hinged plastron (the bottom part of the shell) that they can move to completely conceal themselves. There are two species of box turtle in North America, Eastern and Western, and they are divided into the following subspecies:
Eastern Box Turtles:
Terrapene carolina bauri – Florida box turtle
Terrapene carolina carolina – Eastern box turtle
Terrapene carolina major – Gulf Coast box turtle
Terrapene carolina Mexicana – Mexican box turtle
Terrapene carolina putnami – No common name, now extinct
Terrapene caorilina triunguis – Three-toed box turtle
Terrapene carolina yucatana – Yucatán box turtle
Western Box Turtles:
Terrapene ornata luteola – Desert Box Turtle
Terrapene ornata ornata – Ornate Box Turtle
Eastern box turtles normally grow to between 5 and 8 inches (13 cm and 20 cm) while Western box turtles are smaller, and usually mature at between 4 and 6 inches (10 cm and 15 cm). Each subspecies has a different appearance and individuals vary in coloration as well. It is important to identify which species of box turtle is being kept because their care requirements—especially preferred temperature and diet—are not the same.
Distribution and Habitat
Eastern box turtles range over much of the eastern United States, from the Gulf Coast up into New England. Western box turtles are distributed from Arizona and New Mexico east to the Great Plains and some Midwestern States.
Box turtles are mainly terrestrial and live on land. The two species occupy different types of habitat. Eastern box turtles are associated with deciduous forests and woodlands while Western box turtles inhabit prairies, open plains, and even the edge of desert. Individual turtles have distinct territories that they usually stick to within these habitats. Both Eastern and Western box turtle populations are in decline due to habitat loss.
Three-toed, Eastern, Gulf Coast, and Ornate box turtles are all available on a regular basis from dealers, breeders and pet stores. Unfortunately, wild-caught box turtles are still regularly sold and are most often found for sale at pet stores. Avoid purchasing turtles caught in the wild and instead look for captive-bred individuals directly from a breeder, or alternatively existing unwanted pets. Box turtles have been known to live for more than a century in captivity and are a long-term commitment, so with some searching at reptile rescues and animal shelters it is sometimes possible to find a box turtle. Reptile expos and trade shows where captive-born individuals can be inspected before purchase may be the best place to buy one.
An often overlooked aspect of box turtle care is the enclosure and its size. In the wild, box turtles occupy relatively large areas and providing an enclosure that offers plenty of room is essential. Outdoor turtle pens are best if the climate where you live is suitable for keeping them outdoors. Turtle pens are not difficult to construct and are cheaper than setting up an indoor enclosure.
See Turtle and Tortoise Pen Construction: Step-by-step to learn how to build an outdoor enclosure for your box turtle
Regrettably, not every environment is suitable to house box turtles outdoors year round. In areas outside of their natural range it may be necessary to bring the turtle inside during cold or hot weather, and in some regions, it might not be suitable to keep box turtles outside at all. In these situations, an enclosure indoors will be necessary.
Avoid housing box turtles in glass aquariums if possible. Instead, large plastic tubs such as cement mixing trays, large storage containers, or stock ponds are better. A 50 gallon plastic bin that measures 43 inches long by 22 inches wide by 18 inches high (109 cm by 56 cm by 46 cm) is enough space for one adult, though more room is always better.
Use a substrate the turtle can burrow in. In indoor enclosures, coconut husk fiber is an ideal substrate. Large bark chippings, moss and/or sand can be mixed into the coconut husk fiber. Other possible substrates include cypress mulch or top soil mixed with sand. Gravel, newspaper, sand alone, reptile carpeting, and indoor/outdoor carpeting do not work well long-term because turtles cannot easily burrow in them and they do not hold moisture well. When substrates do not hold moisture, humidity levels can easily fall too low and respiratory and other health problems may develop as a result.
Most captive box turtles are fairly secretive and prefer to remain hidden during the day. To accommodate this, a few hide areas should be provided. These can include pieces of cork bark, commercially available reptile hide spots, driftwood, broken pieces of flower pot, or cardboard shelters with an entrance hole cut in them.
Box turtles that are kept indoors need two qualities from their light source to stay healthy. They need to be exposed to UVB radiation to metabolize calcium in their diet as well as heat to regulate body temperature.
Choose a light source designed for reptiles that produces at least 5% UVB radiation or the equivalent in another index. Place the UVB emitting light bulb over a screen section of the cover or open area of the cage because glass and plastic filter out UVB rays. The amount of UVB radiation that is produced by bulbs slowly decreases over time, so UVB emitting light bulbs need to be replaced once or twice per year regardless of if they burn out or not.
Incandescent light bulbs can be used to heat the cage to an appropriate temperature. With both types of lighting, provide a photoperiod of around 12 hours per day. Infrared incandescent light bulbs can be used to heat the cage at night without disturbing the turtle if needed.
Temperature and Humidity
The temperature range to provide for a box turtle depends on the species that is kept and where it is from. It is important to have both a warm and a cool side within the enclosure so that the box turtle can regulate its own body temperature. Box turtles from the northern end of their range may do better when kept cooler than box turtles from the southern part of their range.
Generally the warmest part of the enclosure should approach 90°F (32°C). The other parts of the enclosure can stay between 65°F-75°F (18°C-24°C). If the temperature falls too low for long periods of time some wild-caught box turtles may try to hibernate. If they aren’t conditioned before they start hibernating the turtle may get sick so it is important to monitoring the temperature in all parts of the cage with a thermometer, moving it around to different areas and taking the temperature during both day and night and at different times of the year.
Eastern box turtles spend much of their time in the leaf litter of forests and woody grasslands and prefer higher humidity than Western box turtles. To accommodate this, mist the cage once or twice daily for Eastern box turtles, especially if the humidity in the room it is kept in is low. Western box turtles may not be as sensitive to periods of low humidity but it is still a good idea to give part of the cage a thorough misting each morning. Adding an area of moist moss or wetting the soil substrate in the part of the enclosure thoroughly each day can also help keep humidity levels high.
Most box turtles take daily baths in water so it is important to provide a large easily-accessed water area. It should be deep enough so that the turtle and nearly submerge itself and big enough to fit the whole turtle. Change the water dish once a day, more often if needed. To ensure that captive box turtles stay hydrated it can be helpful to soak them in lukewarm water for up to an hour once a week.
Both Eastern and Western box turtles are omnivores. Eastern box turtles should be provided with a diet that consists of around 60-70% plant matter, while Western box turtles should be fed a diet split more evenly.
A basic box turtle salad can consist of finely chopped leafy greens mixed with fruites and veggies. Use a variety including apples, pears, grapes, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, cherries, mangos, bananas, zucchini, squash, carrots, sweet potato, and snap peas. Spinach, beets, rhubarb, broccoli, cauliflower and kale should be avoided or used in moderation. Some box turtles may refuse to eat leafy greens, which is fine, provided that their diet is varied and supplemented correctly.
It is important to chop up the fruits and vegetables well before offering them to a turtle. Box turtles often develop strong preferences for certain food items and may avoid eating the ones that they do not like if the salad isn’t chopped and mixed well. Feeding only one or two types of vegetables or fruits, or only a box turtle’s favorite food, will lead to nutritional deficiencies or imbalances. Offer a small, low-lipped dish of fruits and vegetables daily.
Animal based foods for box turtles can consist mostly of live invertebrates like crickets, earth worms, night crawlers, wax worms, super worms, silk worms, horn worms, and meal worms. Out of that list, earthworms and crickets should be fed most often, up to several times per week for Western box turtles. Occasionally, box turtles can also be offered small pre-killed pinky or fuzzy mice or boiled chicken.
Make sure to remove old, uneaten food once the box turtle looses interest in it. Commercial diets and pellets can be offered along with a raw diet but generally aren’t as well-rounded as they claim to be and should not be the only food used. Do not forget to use a high quality reptile vitamin and mineral supplements once every two to three feedings for adult box turtles and at almost every feeding for juvenile turtles. This is key to ensure health problems related to nutrition are avoided.
I’ve a had a love for turtles since I was young. I very had them a few different times during my life. I had some painted turtles from the wild, and was lucky enough to obtain 3 baby sliders from a pet shop many years ago. I’ve had good luck keeping them. But twice during my keeping of them, I had two of them many years apart. Two different species. Painted and a slider . They got a respiratory infection. I always wondered what I did wrong in keeping them. I had two painted turtles for years until one got sick. Since then I don’t want to have another one to suffer.
Can you tell me what could have caused this. They appeared healthy, hard shells grew very well. Another thing that happened was the last two painted I had for years baby when I got them. One would always go face to face with the other and do this flicking thing with it feet in the other ones face. I thought it was a mating attempt of some kind. I didn’t worry until the one bit the other ones mouth. I had a bit of a time separating them, and that’s when shortly after the one got sick with a respiratory illness. Any ways I love to look at them when I m around a pond but not as pets anymore.
Turtles are so cool. Any information about this would be appreciated. Thanks Dan.
Respiratory infections in reptiles often develop when something is a little off in the environment, especially temperature. For example, if a basking bulb burns out and you don’t notice for a couple of weeks that is a pretty good way to encourage health problems to show up. Or, for another example, if the basking spot is already on the cool side though warm enough during summer but then as the seasons change the room the turtles are in cools 5-10 degrees naturally, you will need to replace the basking light with a higher wattage bulb. The best way to avoid problems like these are to have multiple thermometers in the tank, one up out of the water where the sliders or painted turtles bask and one in the water to monitor the water temperature. The other possibility is if you buy baby turtles from a store and they have not been kept well they might already have a health problem you don’t notice until 2-3 weeks later when they are in your care and start showing symptoms. It’s pretty common for stores that still sell baby turtles to not keep them in the greatest conditions.
Yes, you are right on about the slider’s behavior shaking/waving its hands at the other. Males do this, usually to females but sometimes even at other males or even other species.
I can’t thank you enough for replying to my question about my turtles. It’s bothered me for years, on what I did incorrectly. I probably won’t be raising any more turtles at this point of my life, but If that we’re to change, I think that temperature control would have made the difference.
It’s nice to have the internet be a useful tool. Again thanks Dan.
We were given 3x three-toed box turtles by friends and they had there turtles in a water enclosure, with a small bit of land (rock) for the turtles to lay on. Is that ok?
No, they are terrestrial turtles so you want to provide a large enclosure that is mostly land with a smaller water dish. The water dish should be big enough for a turtle or two to soak inside and be easy for the turtles to get in and out of. They will run into health problems if they are kept in an aquatic setup long-term. The best way to keep box turtles is outdoors in a turtle pen, at least for part of the year, bringing them indoors if the temperature are too cold. I hope this helps.
I had one other thought. Make sure they are in fact three-toed box turtles. Sometimes other kinds of pet turtles are called box turtles by people who don’t know what they are, or sometimes animals get mislabeled at pet stores. If the turtles do not close their shell or if they have webbed feet maybe they aren’t actually box turtles and your friends were just calling them box turtles? It is strange for somebody to be keeping box turtles in an aquatic setup. You could also post a link to a photo of them if you want to confirm what kind of turtle they are. Good luck.