What Is A Box Turtle

Box turtles are a subgroup of American pond turtles, widespread among different environments in North America and evolved to handle multiple types of habitat. 

 

In captivity, they are some of the most challenging and rewarding reptile pets. 

 

In fact, the box turtle made our list for the best pet turtles to own.

 

Their resilience and interesting features have made them appealing to wildlife enthusiasts and pet owners alike.

 

If you are interested in learning more about these animals in the desire to own one, there are many categories you will need to consider before committing. 

 

We want your turtle to be as happy and healthy as possible, and we hope to help you with this goal.

Table of Contents

Description Of The Boxed Turtle

Box turtles from North America are part of the genus Terrapene and members of the American pond turtle family, Emydidae

 

Its full scientific taxonomy is Animalia Chordata Reptilia Testudines Cryptodira Testudinoidea Emydidae Emydinae Terrapene. 

 

There are six species and twelve taxa of turtle in this group. 

 

The original classification of Terrapene was for animals which had sternums in two to three pieces which could be moved independently of each other.

 

The Common or Eastern box turtle (Terrapene Carolina) is the subspecies most frequently kept as a pet.

 

Other common pet subspecies include the three-toed box turtle (T. Carolina triunguis), the Florida box turtle (T. c. bauri), and the Gulf Coast box turtle (T. c. major).

 

Adults generally range in size from 4 to 7″ inches (18 cm) across their carapaces.

 

The distinguishing feature of box turtles is their hinged, domed shell.

 

A box turtle can retract its head and limbs entirely into its shell and close the openings to protect itself from predators.

 

There are some similarities with tortoises in the box turtle group, like flat non-webbed feet with long claws instead of flippers and box turtles spending more time on land than in water.

 

However, there are enough differences to distinguish these creatures as turtles rather than tortoises.

 

Wild box turtles live for decades, depending on the environment and overall health. 

 

Well-kept captive turtles have been known to live for 20-40 years.

 

To achieve longevity, we recommend you adopt or buy a captive-bred box turtle.

 

A captive-bred turtle is less likely to experience stress as a result of being kept in an enclosure.

 

More importantly, many American turtle populations are under threat due to habitat destruction and the pet trade. 

 

Many states have laws in place preventing the sale and keeping of wild-caught turtles. 

 

A wild-caught box turtle is unlikely to be happy in an enclosure. 

 

Many wild-caught specimens do not survive their first year in captivity.

Habitat

Wild Habitats

A box turtle’s native habitat depends, first, on whether it is an American or an Asian species. 

 

American turtles, including three-toed and common box turtles, live throughout a variety of habitats throughout North America. 

 

Some species’ habitats even stretch to the deserts of Mexico.

 

It is difficult to narrow down one type of habitat for a turtle, though they will use forests for their winter hibernations.

 

Box turtles today are incredibly similar in makeup and appearance to their ancestors in the fossil record.

 

Their lack of evolutionary specialization and of strong changes in their physical morphology suggests they are a generalist group of animals, not specially evolved to survive in any one habitat.

 

Asian turtles, as a subgroup, generally live in more humid and hot environments than the wide range of American turtles.

Captive Habitats

When creating the proper environment for your captive turtle, you will need to find out your species’ particular environment needs. 

 

Since American turtles are so widespread and do not stick to one particular habitat, their habitat needs, including temperatures, humidity, and appropriate plant life, will vary primarily by species.

 

Across species, an outdoor habitat, if possible, is recommended over an indoor one. 

 

Obviously, this will only work year-round if your outdoor environment stays above 50° degrees Fahrenheit (10° C). 

 

In colder environments or environments with seasonal differences, we recommend keeping your turtle outdoors in the warmer parts of the year and indoors during cold seasons.

 

In any case, a single aquarium or glass tank is not big enough to satisfy a turtle’s territory needs. 

 

Many owners have adapted children’s’ play tubs, sandboxes, and even entire rooms for their pets if they keep them indoors. 

 

Maintain a loose substrate level of 3-4″ inches (10 cm) at the bottom of the enclosure.

 

Provide both sunny and shady spots in the environment. 

 

Shady plants and hides will allow your pet to feel secure in its environment. 

 

A turtle will need around 12 hours a day of UVB light if indoors or sunlight if kept outdoors.

 

Below is a table of heat needs for different species of American box turtle:

Species

Common

Three-Toed

Gulf Coast

Florida

Mexican

Daytime or Hot Side

70-80° F (21-27° C)

80° F (27° C)

80-85° F (27-29° C)

70-90° F (21-32° C)

75°+ F (23° C+)

Basking Spot

85-90° F (29-32° C)

85° F (29° C)

90°F (32°C)

85-95° F (29-35° C)

Nighttime or Cool Side

65-75° F (18-23° C)

70° F (21° C)

No cooler than 70° F (21° C)

70-75° F (21-23° C)

65° F (18° C)

While most American turtles like humidity levels at around 60%, a Florida box turtle requires 70-90% humidity in their enclosure.

 

A semi-moist loose substrate is the best option for your turtle, providing them with humidity and burrowing material.

 

Plants and mosses may help provide shade and retain proper humidity levels. 

 

You will want to make sure any plants in the environment are safe for your turtle and match as accurately as possible the vegetation they would find in their natural habitat.

Behavior

Turtles are diurnal animals, meaning they are awake during the day and sleep or reduce body functions when it gets dark. 

 

In captivity, you should mimic this cycle by turning off their lights during the night. 

 

Most turtles will also tolerate a slight heat drop during the nighttime.

 

In the wild, turtles will spend their waking hours foraging for food, eating, and sometimes mating if males encounter females. 

 

They will thermoregulate their bodies by staying in shady areas, preventing them from overheating. 

 

In captivity, make sure your turtle has shady spots in its enclosure, either by planting appropriate shade plants or by giving them suitable hides.

 

Turtles also thermoregulate through burrowing in the ground. 

 

A loose substrate at the bottom of the enclosure is necessary for this purpose.

 

Though some owners will say their box turtles like handling, experts argue handling will cause your pet unnecessary stress. 

 

We recommend handling them as little as possible unless you know your turtle will tolerate it.

 

Once they are comfortable in their environments, turtles will recognize their owners, following them around their enclosures. 

 

This recognition suggests a level of intelligence. 

 

Lab tests suggest wood turtles are better than white rats at navigating through mazes, suggesting box turtles may have similar levels of intelligence.

 

Turtles rarely vocalize or make noises. 

 

They may vocalize as babies to get attention or food, or in adulthood to find mates. 

 

They may also vocalize because they are injured or ill.

Health

There are several health issues which commonly affect captive turtles. 

 

This is not a complete list. 

 

If you see any odd symptoms or behaviors in your pet, contact your veterinarian immediately.

Metabolic Bone Disease (MBD)

Metabolic Bone Disease is a result of improper calcium intake and absorption.

 

It will affect turtles’ beaks, shells, nails, limbs, and sometimes their internal organs. 

 

A turtle with advanced MBD will display these symptoms:

If you see any of these symptoms, contact your veterinarian immediately. 

 

They will be able to give you a diagnosis and a treatment plan. 

 

Treatment plans will involve:

Prevent your turtle from developing MBD through proper husbandry. 

 

Make sure your box turtle is getting enough calcium in their diets or through supplements. 

 

Ensure they are also getting enough vitamin D3, provided by the sunlight if they are outside and by a UVB lamp if they are inside. 

 

Be careful: too much vitamin D may also harm your box turtle. 

 

Make sure your box turtle is not eating more phosphorous than calcium in their food, as phosphorous is a compound which interferes with calcium absorption.

Respiratory Infections

In box turtles, respiratory infections are usually the result of insufficient humidity. 

 

Bacteria cause many respiratory infections. 

 

If these infections are chronic, your turtle may also be suffering from a vitamin A deficiency.

 

If your turtle has a respiratory infection, you may see:

If your turtle has a vitamin A deficiency, your vet will usually treat it via oral or injectable vitamin A. 

 

They will also give you dietary tips to help your turtle’s nutrition. 

 

Your vet may want to run tests and x-rays to determine a further cause of a respiratory infection. 

 

From there, infection is treated with antibiotics, or, if your turtle is very sick, they may need to stay in the office for overnight fluid treatment and force-feeding.

 

Make sure your box turtle’s enclosure remains at a humidity of about 60%. 

 

If you have a Florida box turtle, your humidity should be higher, between 70 and 90%.

Shell Rot

Shell rot is usually caused by bacterial or fungal infections and is often the result of trauma to the shell.

 

You may see:

Your vet will want to perform a microscopic analysis to determine what kind of microbe is causing the shell rot.

 

They will then completely clean the shell, repair any fractures, and prescribe appropriate medications.

Gastrointestinal Parasites

Turtles are commonly affected by parasites like roundworms. 

 

These may cause diarrhea, weight loss, or loss of appetite. 

 

Your veterinarian will need to examine a stool sample to determine if any parasites are present and what type they are. 

 

They will then prescribe an appropriate deworming medication.

Diet

Turtles are opportunistic omnivores. 

 

In the wild, they will spend their days foraging for insect life and fresh vegetation.

 

In captivity, we recommend whole, live food as your turtle’s main staples. 

 

Most turtles will eat a mix of vegetables, fruits, live insects, low-fat cooked meats, and hay or other grasses. 

 

Babies have higher nutrition needs than an adult box turtle, so they should be fed every 24 hours. 

 

Feed adults every other day unless your veterinarian recommends a different schedule.

 

You should generally be feeding your turtle more vegetation than protein. 

 

Excessive protein in a pet reptile’s diet may lead to health issues like obesity and gout.

 

To prevent health issues like obesity, we recommend feeding turtles only the amount of food they will eat in 10 minutes. 

 

Make sure to feed them using a plate or other separate flat surface, so they don’t eat their substrate.

 

You also need to provide water at all times, changing it frequently to keep it clean. 

 

A shallow, wide dish big enough to soak in without tipping over or resulting in drowning is ideal. 

 

You may need to provide an additional calcium supplement depending on your turtle’s environment.

Vegetation

The best vegetables, vegetation, and fruits for turtles include berries, Chinese cabbage, dark leafy greens like kale and collards, apples (skin-on, no seeds), hay, and other grasses. 

 

Turtles can eat mushrooms, which would be poisonous to humans and mammals. 

 

Make sure the type of mushroom is safe for a turtle to eat.

 

When offering any veggie, grass, or fruit, make sure it is pesticide-free and well-washed. 

 

Most experts recommend only giving reptiles organic produce. 

 

When planting a live plant for eating in their enclosure, make sure the plant and its soil have not been treated with chemicals or pesticides.

 

Check the phosphorous to calcium ratio of any food before giving it to your turtle. 

 

Items with more phosphorous than calcium will interfere with calcium absorption and potentially lead to MBD if fed too often. 

 

Veggies and fruits with high amounts of phosphorous include bananas, tomatoes, and sweet corn.

Protein

Good live insects to feed your turtle include crickets, earthworms, grasshoppers, beetles, caterpillars, mealworms, waxworms, superworms, red worms, snails, and slugs.

 

Thawed pinky mice and feeder minnows are ok on an occasional basis.

 

Though whole, live foods are ideal, turtles can eat cooked low-fat meat or low-fat high-quality canned dog food with moisture added. 

 

Pet stores also sell prepared protein items for pet turtles, but these should definitely be supplemented with fresh foods if used.

Good Foods For Boxed Turtles

Vegetation

Protein

Food Not Great For Turtles

Iceberg and romaine lettuce, though they are often a turtle’s favorites, provide little to no nutritional value for your pet.

 

If fed too often, these lettuces may cause diarrhea. 

 

Stick to leafy greens, cabbages, and bok choy as staples.

 

Foods high in oxalates may also result in nutritional deficiencies. 

 

These include vegetables like swiss chard, spinach, and beet greens.

 

Feed these sparingly, if at all.

 

Insect species which produce their own luminescence, like fireflies or glowworms, contain toxic chemicals and should not be fed to any reptile pet.

Care

Challenges

Experts do not recommend box turtles as beginner pets.

 

They are unsuitable pets for children or for inexperienced pet owners.

 

Their habitat needs, including weekly enclosure cleaning and outdoor enclosure maintenance, are demanding even among reptilian pets. 

 

Turtles are easily stressed, meaning any change to their environments will disturb them, leaving them vulnerable to a host of health issues.

 

Their potentially long lifespans also make them a huge commitment as a pet.

 

You will have to consider what to do with your turtle if it outlives you.

 

If you are aware of the responsibility and you still want to commit, turtles are a rewarding and fascinating pet.

Enclosure Cleaning

You should be deep cleaning your turtle’s enclosure once a week. 

 

Spot clean it for fecal and urate matter once a day. 

 

A loose substrate should help you dig out and replace dirty substrate with ease. 

 

Clean and refill your turtle’s water bowl every day, as they tend to use it as a toilet.

 

An outdoor enclosure may be easier to clean than an indoor one since sunlight and rain often take care of unwanted waste and parasites. 

 

However, you should still be removing leftover food and feces every day. 

 

If outdoors, refresh the substrate with fresh soil every month or so, turning it over.

 

Keep an eye out for parasites like fire ants and mites, as these may cause great harm to your pet.

Handling

Though you should be limiting handling, there is a right way and a wrong way to handle a turtle when necessary. 

 

Make sure you are using both hands on either side of its shell, between its front and back legs. 

 

If you need to rotate it to get it off its back, do it head over tail, not side over side. 

 

When finished handling, put it down on the ground as gently as possible. 

 

Make sure to wash your hands before and after handling, as turtles carry salmonella.

Reproduction

Among experts, there exists a difference of opinion on when these turtles reach sexual maturity. 

 

Reports stretch anywhere from 4 to 20 years of age, depending on the quality of life, environment, and nutrition.

 

We do know turtles’ sexual organs, like most reptiles and birds, are found in the cloaca. 

 

A cloaca is a multipurpose reproductive and excretory orifice. 

 

Males have long internally-kept penises in order to reach the females’ sex organs, sometimes at a very steep angle.

 

Courtship and mating generally happen in the spring, after turtles wake up from their winter hibernation.

 

However, mating may happen whenever a male and female encounter each other in the wild. 

 

Males will find females through scent and visual cues. 

 

Males will also fight each other over females. 

 

After mating, females can store sperm in their systems for four years before fertilizing their eggs with it.

 

A normal egg clutch size for these turtles is 4-6 at a time. 

 

After she has laid and buried them in soft loam or topsoil, the mother leaves her babies to fend for themselves. 

 

The eggs will incubate for 70 to 90 days. 

 

During incubation, hatchling turtles rely on the nutrients from the yolk sacs in their eggs. 

 

Once it is time to hatch, a baby turtle will use its egg tooth to break free from the egg.

 

As the eggs incubate, the ambient heat will determine what sex the embryos become. 

 

This phenomenon is called Temperature-Dependent Sex Determination. 

 

A higher temperature will result in female hatchlings, while a lower temperature in the appropriate range will result in male hatchlings. 

 

Mid-range provides a 50-50 chance to get either sex.

Captivity Supplies

Reptile terrarium, storage container, plastic children’s wading pool, sandbox, or bathtub, at least 40 gallons and 4×8′ feet (1.22×2.44 m): Something big enough for the turtle to live in, tall sides with an overhang will prevent escape.

 

UVB Lamp and Lightbulb: A bulb and lamp which emit UV light, necessary for producing vitamin D3 in your turtle which aids in calcium absorption.

 

Ceramic heat emitter or heat lamp: Produce heat and, in the case of the heat lamp, light for your turtle’s enclosure.

 

Shallow Water Dish: a water and soaking source for a turtle, make sure it is shallow enough not to drown in and sturdy enough to not tip over.

 

Hides: Will provide emotional and physical security, and shady spots to thermoregulate.

 

Loose moisture-retaining substrate: Bedding and litter facilitates digging and burrowing behavior; we recommend chemical-free topsoil with added leaves or moss.

 

Hygrometer/Thermometer: Monitor and display heat and humidity within the turtle’s enclosure.

 

Nontoxic Turtle-safe cleaner: For deep and spot cleans of the enclosure walls and solid surfaces.

 

Spray Mister: Bottle or automatic setup, maintains humidity and provides another source of drinking and soaking water, spray substrate to retain moisture and humidity.

 

Native Nontoxic Plants: May provide extra eating vegetation and shade for your turtle.

Species

Common or Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene Carolina Carolina): Yellow and brown patterning on the carapace; males have red eyes while females have yellow or brown, three or four toes.

 

Three-toed Box Turtle (T. c. triunguis): Ridged carapace in tans and light browns, contrary to name does not always have three toes.

 

Gulf Coast Box Turtle (T. c. major): Black carapace with orange blotches, whitish beak and neck.

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