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Chapter 1: Understanding Box Turtles

Chapter 2: Things to Know Before Getting a Box Turtle

Chapter 3: Purchasing Your Box Turtle

Chapter 4: Caring for Your New Box Turtle

Chapter 5: Meeting Your Box Turtle’s Nutritional Needs

Chapter 6: Box Turtle Care and Husbandry

Chapter 7: Box Turtle Handling and Temperament

Chapter 8: Breeding Your Box Turtle

Chapter 9: Keeping Your Box Turtle Healthy

Chapter 1: Understanding Box Turtles

Box Turtles, also sometimes known as Shelled Box Turtles or Crescent Turtles, of the genus Terrapene, are a species native to the United States and Mexico.  There are four species of Box Turtles spread out over different regions, including the Common Box Turtle, the Coahuilan Box Turtle, the Spotted Box Turtle, and the Ornate Box Turtle.

Box Turtles have a distinctive dome-shaped shell with a hinged bottom that allows the turtle to retract into its shell and close it tightly against predators.  They can literally “box themselves in” – thus accounting for their name.

Box Turtles have easily become very popular pets in recent years – they are fairly hardy, and compared to most other turtles and tortoises, their habitat and dietary needs are pretty straightforward, though no less complex and specific.  But they are quiet creatures, and fairly small, so many people have opted to keep them as pets when dogs or cats simply won’t do.

It is important to remember, however, that Box Turtles are not like traditional pets in that they will never demonstrate affection to you as their keeper.  In fact, they don’t even appreciate being handled too often and too much, and would far prefer being left alone.  These are solitary creatures, and although they are gentle and mild-mannered, they can also be easily stressed by too much socialization and major changes in their habitat.  Box Turtles like their privacy.  If you are the type who likes demonstrative affection between you and your pet, then a Box Turtle is probably not the best choice for you.  For that matter, if you are the type who shuns the kind of long, term daily responsibility of maintenance and upkeep that this quiet little turtle needs, then you’re better off looking for another pet.

So when does a Box Turtle make a good pet?  There is really no easy and fast answer – Box Turtles make great pets for those who want Box Turtles as pets.  But a caveat to this is that the person must fully understand what it means to care for one of these amazing creatures.  With a fully informed choice, Box Turtles can make amazing lifelong pets and companions.

Summary of Box Turtle Facts

Basic Box Turtle Information

Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Reptilia

Order: Testudines

Suborder: Cryptodira

Family: Emydidae

Genus: Terrapene

Species: Terrapene Carolina, Terrapene Coahuila, Terrapene Nelsoni, Terrapene Ornata

Regions of Origin: 

  • Common Box Turtles – South-Central, Eastern, and South Eastern parts of the United States, the Yucatan Peninsula and North Eastern parts of Mexico
  • Ornate Box Turtle – South central and Southwestern parts of the United States, including adjacent parts of Mexico
  • Spotted Box Turtle – North-Western Mexico
  • Coahuilan Box Turtle – Cuatro Cienegas Basin in Coahuila, Mexico

Primary Habitat: Box Turtles occupy a wide variety of habitats depending on the type and region of origin, and can include grasslands, Mesic woodlands, semi-desert with occasional rainfall, or marshes

Description: Characterized by a domed shell with a hinged bottom.  They don’t have teeth, but have a rigid beak with upper and lower jaws covered by sharp, horny ridges which they use to eat tough and fibrous vegetation.  Shell color patterns differ depending on the species, and helps them blend better into their environment.  While the turtle’s vertebra is rigid and elongated in the central part of the shell, it is small and flexible in the neck and tail, for easier movement.

Male irises are red or orange, and a female’s is brown or yellow.  But a better way to distinguish them by gender is the plastron, or the bottom shell.  This is more concave in males for easier mating.  Box Turtles have a hinged joint at the bottom which they can close tightly after hiding within its shell to serve as protection against predators.

Length: In general, adults range from 4-7 inches across the carapace, but there are still variations in size among the different species.

Weight: 1-2 lbs

Conservation Status: 

  • Common Box Turtles – Vulnerable
  • Ornate Box Turtle – Near threatened
  • Spotted Box Turtle – No official status due to lack of study
  • Coahuilan Box Turtle – Endangered

Health Conditions: Swollen and closed eyes, Ear abscesses, Parasites, Shell and Skin Problems, Respiratory Infection, Metabolic Bone Disease

Lifespan: average 40-50 years

Origin and Distribution

Box turtles are a genus native to the United States and Mexico.  There are four recognized species of box turtles: the Common box turtle, the Coahuilan box turtle, the Spotted box turtle,, and the Ornate box turtle.

The most widely distributed species is the common box turtle, which is found in South-Central, Eastern, and the South Eastern parts of the United States, as well as in the Yucatan peninsula and the North Eastern parts of Mexico.

The Ornate Box turtle is endemic to the South-central and South Western parts of the United States and adjacent parts of Mexico.  The Spotted box turtle is endemic only to North-Western Mexico, while the Coahuilan box turtle is only found in the Cuatro Cienegas Basin in Coahuila, Mexico.

Box turtles occupy a wide variety of habitats – which varies depending on the species and the season, so there is not really an identifiable standard habitat for the box turtle.  In general, however, box turtles can be found in Mesic or a moderately moist habitat, or an ecology with a well=balanced supply of moisture.  Some species, however, can also be found in grasslands or even in semi-desert areas.  Interestingly, the box turtle is the official reptile of at least four U.S. states: North Carolina, Tennessee, Missouri, and Kansas.

Species and Subspecies of Box Turtles

Below we take a look at the species and subspecies of the box turtle, including their current state of distribution.

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