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American Box Turtle

American Box Turtle

Box turtles are in the Order Chelonia, Family Emydidae, and genus Terrapene. There are two major species in the United States: carolina (Eastern box turtle) and ornata (Western or ornate box turtle).

Box turtles are easily recognized by their dome-shaped upper shell (carapace) and by their lower shell (plastron) which is hinged near the front. This hinging allows them to close up tightly into the "box" when in danger (hence their name).

Box turtles are fairly small, having an adult maximum length of 47 in (1018 cm). Their range is restricted to North America, with the Eastern species located over most of the eastern United States and the Western species located in the Central and Southwestern United States and into Mexico, but not as far west as California. Both species are highly variable in coloration and pattern, ranging from a uniform tan to dark brown or black, with yellow spots or streaks. They prefer a dry habitat such as woodlands, open brush lands, or prairie . They typically inhabit sandy soil , but are sometimes found in springs or ponds during hot weather. During the winter, they hibernate in the soil below the frost line, often as deep as 2 ft (60 cm). Their home range is usually fairly small, and they often live within areas less than 300 yd2 (300 m2).

Box turtles are omnivorous, feeding on living and dead insects, earthworms, slugs, fruits, berries (particularly blackberries and strawberries), leaves, and mushrooms. They have been known to ingest some mushrooms which are poisonous to humans, and there have been reports of people eating box turtles and getting sick. Other than this, box turtles are harmless to humans and are commonly collected and sold as pets (although this should be discouraged because they are now a threatened species). They can be fed raw hamburger, canned pet food, or leafy vegetables.

Box turtles normally live as long as 3040 years. Some have been reported with a longevity of more than one hundred years, and this makes them the longest-lived land turtle. They are active from March until November and are diurnal, usually being more active in the early morning. During the afternoons they typically seek shaded areas. They breed during the spring and autumn, and the females build nests from May until July, typically in sandy soil where they dig a hole with their hind feet. The females can store sperm for several years. They typically hatch three to eight eggs that are elliptically-shaped and about 1.5 in (4 cm) in diameter. Male box turtles have a slight concavity in their plastron that aids in mounting females during copulation. All four toes on the male's hind feet are curved, which aids in holding down the posterior portion of the female's plastron during copulation. Females have flat plastrons, shorter tails, and yellow or brown eyes. Most males have bright red or pink eyes. The upper jaw of both sexes ends in a down-turned beak.

Predators of box turtles include skunks, raccoons, foxes, snakes, and other animals. Native American Indians used to eat box turtles and incorporated their shells into their ceremonies as rattles.

[John Korstad ]



Conant, R. A Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of Eastern and Central North America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.

Tyning, T. F. A Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1990.


"Conservation and Preservation of American Box Turtles in the Wild." The American Box Turtle Page. Fall 2000 [cited May 2002]. <>.

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