Box Turtle Varieties Explained

Are there different varieties of box turtles?

What is the difference between American and Asian box turtles?

You may be interested in a box turtle as a new pet. 

You might be interested in your local wildlife and how to protect it. 

Either way, you want to know more about the many varieties of box turtle. 

Knowing what species of box turtle you have and where it came from may help you give it better care.

box turtle varieties

Box Turtle Varieties Explained

Only a few of the many varieties of box turtle, both American and Asian, are regularly kept as pets. All in all, there are 6 species and 12 taxa or sub-species of box turtle, along with even more smaller variations. 

Depending on the species you own, their care needs may be different. 

For example, Asian turtles generally have higher temperature needs than American ones. 

However, most commonly kept American turtles have similar needs with each other, as Asian turtles do with each other.

Can You Keep Wild Box Turtles As Pets?

Capturing a wild American box turtle to raise as a pet is illegal in many states. 

Protections have been set in place to save already endangered and struggling wild populations.

If you are planning on buying or adopting, a trustworthy captive breeder, rescue organization, or pet store will be able to tell you what species they have. 

If they can’t, the turtles are most likely wild-caught. 

Not only is it illegal, but a wild turtle also is not as likely to survive its first year in captivity as a captive-bred one. 

Turtles have a strong homing instinct, which will cause a wild specimen to search for its home and attempt to escape no matter what. 

This causes a lot of stress.

If you see an injured wild box turtle, contact your local wildlife rescue organization. 

Do not attempt to nurse it back to health if you do not know-how.

American Box Turtles

American box turtles are spread out across many different habitats in the Eastern, Central, and Southwestern parts of the United States. 

A few species are endemic south of the U.S. border.

This group is part of the family of pond turtles, Emididae. 

Their genus is Terrapene

From there, the genus is further divided into several species and subspecies. 

Most commonly, American varieties belong to Terrapene Carolina, often abbreviated to T.c.

American turtles are not specialized in any one habitat. 

While some live in humid coastal areas, many stay around ponds, swampy areas, and hibernate in forests. 

Some even spend most of their lives in dry grassland and desert.

Many American turtle populations are currently under threat because of habitat destruction and illegal poaching for the pet trade. 

This makes it more critical than ever to research reputable captive breeders before purchasing or adopting a pet turtle.

Common Box Turtle

Scientific name: Terrapene Carolina Carolina

Common box turtles, also known as Eastern box turtles, are the most commonly kept pet variety. 

They grow to 4-6″ inches (14 cm) long. 

They have a high, dark brown carapace with orange or red blotches of various shapes and sizes. 

Males have colorful scales on their front legs.

Their range in the wild stretches from Maine to Georgia from North to South, and they range westward into Michigan, Illinois, and Tennessee.

Three-Toed Box Turtle

Scientific name: Terrapene carolina triunguis

Three-toeds are also common as pets, although their name is a bit of a misnomer since they do not always have three toes. 

They reach lengths of 3.5 to 5″ inches (12.7 cm). 

They have a keeled carapace, which is usually olive-brown or yellowish-brown, sometimes with yellow markings. 

Male three-toeds have colorful red or brown heads.

In the wild, they’re found as far north as Missouri, and their habitats spread south to Texas and Alabama.

Gulf Coast Box Turtle

Scientific name: Terrapene Carolina major

While you sometimes see gulf coast turtles as pets, they are nowhere near as common in captivity. 

Gulf Coast box turtles have smaller ranges and wild populations, making them more likely to receive protection in the wild. 

They grow 5 to 7″ inches (15.5 cm) in length. 

Their shells are usually olive-brown or dark brown. 

They have unique back marginal scutes, which are flared outward like a ledge. 

It is hypothesized they use this to help them navigate during the wetter seasons in their natural habitat.

Gulf Coast turtles are found in coastal areas of Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, and Western Florida.

Florida Box Turtle

Scientific name: Terrapene carolina bauri

Florida box turtles are also not as common as pets. 

Both Florida and Gulf coast turtles have higher humidity needs in captivity. 

As opposed to the normal 60% humidity, either of these two varieties will need maintenance at 70-90% at all times.

Florida turtles have high domed shells patterned with starbursts of yellow. 

They are found only in Florida.

Mexican Box Turtle

Scientific name: Terrapene carolina mexicana

This variety is not common in captivity. 

Experts do not know very much about it, beyond its natural habitat. 

Its scientific classification in Terrapene Carolina is even hotly debated.

Mexican box turtles are endemic to Northeastern Mexico, around the region San Luis Potosi.

Yucatan Box Turtle

Scientific name: Terrapene carolina yucatana

These are also not as common in captivity. 

They have a light-colored shell, sometimes with black dots, and a yellowish head. 

Like Mexican turtles, their scientific classification is also not entirely clear. 

They are endemic to the Yucatan peninsula.

Western Box Turtles

Western or ornate turtles are part of a different group of species and subspecies to the Eastern varieties: Terrapene ornata. 

However, these are also commonly seen as pets. 

In the wild, they live in open grasslands and agricultural land. 

They may have developed alongside herds of large animals in the grasslands of the west since they are capable of pulling apart large piles of manure to find insects and grubs to eat.

Ornate Box Turtle

Scientific name: Terrapene ornata ornata

These turtles reach 4-5″ inches (12.7 cm) in length. 

Their upper domes are flattened. 

They usually have a dark brown shell with yellow lines forming a starburst pattern on top. 

Their skin is usually a dark gray or white.

They are native to the grasslands of South Dakota, but their range stretches eastward from there to Illinois and southward to Arizona and Texas.

Desert Ornate Box Turtle

Scientific name: Terrapene ornata luteola

These are also known as just desert box turtles. 

Like with all box turtles, they are endangered, do not remove them from their wild habitats. 

They usually have yellow stripes on their shells.

If you do own one as a pet, make sure it has soft, dry soil to dig in. 

This will mimic its native habitat of dry grassland and desert.

Not Common As Pets And Endangered

Northern and Southern spotted box turtles, scientific names in Terrapene nelsoni, are endemic to the Sierra Madre Occidental in Western Mexico. 

Their common names come from their spotted upper domes. 

These are very rarely seen as pets.

The Coahuila box turtle (scientific name Terrapene Coahuila), is also known as the aquatic box turtle since it spends much of its time swimming in lakes and ponds. 

These are not commonly seen as pets, mainly because they are well-protected by the Mexican government. 

Coahuila turtles are also endangered.

One subspecies of Terrapene Carolina is extinct: T.c. putnami

What we know of this turtle mainly comes from the fossil record and post-extinction descriptions. 

It was large for a box turtle.

Asian Box Turtles

These varieties belong to an entirely different family and genus to the American types. 

Asian turtles are members of the family Geoemydidae, and within this family belong to the genus Cuora

They are semiaquatic and either omnivorous or carnivorous.

Since their native habitats are so different, they have very different care needs from American turtles. 

If you are keeping an Asian species as a pet, make sure to check on their humidity and temperature needs, as theirs are generally higher than American turtles’. 

Asian varieties will also need a permanent swimming pool as part of their enclosures.

Many Asian varieties of box turtles are close to extinction. 

Of the 16 known varieties, four are already extinct. 

Legal and illegal food and pet trades are largely to blame. 

In captivity, most Asian varieties are either rare or completely extinct.

Chinese Box Turtle

Scientific name: Cuora flavomaginata

Also known as yellow-margined box turtles, these endangered turtles average 6″ inches (15 cm) in length. 

They have yellow keels and one yellow stripe on each side of their heads. 

Their feet are usually dark in color.

These turtles are native to Southern China and Taiwan, spending much of their lives in rice paddies and ponds.

Malayan Box Turtle

Scientific name: Cuora amboinensis

These turtles are also known as Amboina, Southeast Asian, or Malaysian box turtles. 

There are four different subspecies in this one group. 

Their native habitats are spread across Southeast Asia, usually around warm bodies of water, but they are not seen in areas with temperatures lower than 70° degrees Fahrenheit (21° C). 

Malayan box turtles have three yellow or white stripes down their heads. 

Their shells and heads are dark green.

Is It Important To Know What Variety Of Box Turtle I Own?

While there are similarities in care needs across species of captive turtle, the details may vary depending on your turtle’s natural wild habitat and behavior. 

If you are planning to put plants in their enclosure, for example, it is best to purchase ones which will best mimic or reflect the foliage they would find in their native homes. 

Since Asian turtles spend so much more time around and in the water than American varieties, half of their enclosures should be swimming-friendly. 

Meanwhile, American turtles just need a dish big enough to soak in without tipping over or drowning.

The restrictions on certain species of box turtle allowed in captivity are also necessary. 

You do not want to get in trouble with any federal or state government for a mistake an inattentive pet shop or rescue organization made. 

Importing an Asian box turtle may also be tricky, though small captive-bred populations in the United States may be easier to purchase from.

Overall, you want to provide your pet with the best possible life in captivity. 

This will require research into the care of your specific type of turtle.

How Do I Protect Wild Box Turtles?

If you are a turtle enthusiast and want to protect wild animals, the best way is to spread information and awareness. 

If you or anyone you know is looking to buy or adopt a box turtle, we urge you to consider where they are from and what variety they are. 

In the United States, Mexico, and Canada, we are lucky to have captive breeding populations specifically for the pet trade. 

Do not frequent any store which is unsure of the types of turtle they have for sale. 

These are more likely to be wild-caught.

Check out the information at your local Department of Natural Resources (DNR). 

They will tell you more about the varieties of turtles in your area and how best to protect them. 

Your state or locality may also have local box turtle preservation organizations which may have more specific information.

Turtles which have to move into suburban habitats often lay their eggs in open, sunny areas like lawns. 

Be aware and careful while mowing your lawn not to disturb the eggs or the mother if she’s laying them.

Final Thoughts

There are and were many types of box turtle. 

A few are common or rare as pets. Some are not suitable for captivity for temperament, habitat needs, or a threatened wild population. 

The type of turtles you own as a pet may determine their habitat and environmental needs, which may require specific research.

Make sure any pet turtle you adopt or buy is captive-bred. 

This will take some pressure off of already taxed native populations of a turtle. 

Captive-bred turtles also generally survive their first year in captivity, where wild-caught turtles do not.

If you are not interested in a pet turtle but want to help wild populations, check with local organizations to see how you might help.