Reptiles And Amphibians

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Box Turtles - Intro

Box Turtles have been around for ages, ever since the dinosaurs. Nowadays, we keep them as pets. If you have box turtles, you're required to have a permit that allows you to keep them. You will learn more about box turtles eating habits, housing them, and much more in the paragraphs below. If you would like advanced information, start after the "Hibernation" paragraph.

Feeding Your Box Turtle

Diet is one of the most crucial factors in maintaining a healthy box turtle. Getting a turtle to eat or to eat the proper nutritious foods is often the hardest thing a turtle owner must learn to do. For some reason, many turtles, especially wild caught turtles, will not readily eat or are fixated on certain foods. It may have something to do with the stress of captivity, changes in the environment, or removal from their home ranges. Temperature and lighting play a role in triggering appetite and turtles no doubt have their own food preferences. A turtle not given the proper circumstances to feed will go on a hunger strike. Unlike warm-blooded animals, they aren’t forced by their metabolism to eat. They can just slow down their activity level, retreat in their shells and wait for better conditions. Unfortunately, if the turtles are kept in a tank or penned in an outdoor area, those better conditions never come unless the owner makes an effort to supply them. If they aren’t supplied the turtle will slowly grow weaker and becomes debilitated, sick and eventually dies. It’s important to find out what is required to get your turtle to eat.

These are some of the first causes to look for when box turtles refuse to eat-
If the box turtle is outside, try feeding it during late morning hours or after a light sprinkling of water. If it is early in the year or late in the fall, you may need to adjust the time of feeding to a later hour so the turtle has a chance to warm up first. When nighttime temperatures go below 65° F the turtle will need to warm up its body temperature before it will feed. Cold turtles cannot digest their food properly; therefore location is important when considering a place for an outdoor set up. Check to see where you have placed the enclosure. If the enclosure faces the east, it will get morning sun; but if it is on the west side, it may not get sun until later in the day. West- and north-facing enclosures are not ideal.

Some turtles are very timid and will not eat in the open. You need to provide an eating area where it feels safe, for example, near a shrub or under a hide box. Is the food in the sun or shade? Try putting the food plate in an area where it is partly shaded in the summer. A turtle can overheat very quickly, and it may not venture out into the sun to eat if it is too hot.

Is the food something the turtle wants to eat? Wild turtles are omnivores and in will eat earthworms, snails, grubs, beetles, caterpillars, carrion, grasses, fallen fruit, berries, mushrooms and flowers. They will take a bite of anything that smells edible. This is the diet that is best to follow. Give in moderation all types of edible food. But they won’t come across cheeseburgers or bacon and eggs in the wild! You must feed your turtle what it needs to eat, not what is convenient for you to give it. If you find something your turtle really loves, then you are half way to retraining any bad eating habits. If it loves earthworms then try giving it chopped worms with grated yellow squash and cantaloupe. Or a plate of worms and chopped collard greens and strawberries. A list of good food items is presented later in this section.

If your turtle is kept indoors, and this is recommended only for hatchlings and sick or weak box turtles, then you have other factors to consider if your turtle won’t eat. Is the ambient temperature too low or too high? There should be a gradient of temperatures in the housing with the warm end being around 85-87° F and a cool area around 75-78°. This cool area could be where the hide box or burrowing area is placed. Feed the turtle at the same hour and place each time. A UVA and UVB producing fluorescent lights can make foods more appealing to turtles by bring out the colors. It may also stimulate appetite in much the same way a nice bright sunny day makes us happy. Full-spectrum light is also necessary for vitamin D3 production, especially if your turtles is not getting vitamin D3 from food and is not living outside.

Are several turtles housed together in close proximity? A dominant turtle may not let a weaker turtle eat. Make sure each turtle has their own food dish or fed in seperate areas if necessay. Place the food on shallow plates or tiles.

After you have eliminated all physical causes of a hunger strike and the turtle still does not eat, then you will have to look at medical reasons. For a beginning turtle keeper it may be hard to tell from just behavior if a turtle isn’t eating due to an illness. If the feces look firm and no whitish mass of worms is seen, you can try soaking the turtle in slightly warm water that contains a few drops of reptile vitamins for half an hour each day for one week. The water should only go half way up the back of the shell and not over the turtle’s head. If a turtle still hasn’t eaten after a week, then a trip to a reptile veterinarian may be necessary.

If the eyes are closed and puffy, the box turtle will not eat and should be taken to a veterinarian. There are several reasons why the eye condition may be present. Vitamin A deficiency causes the glands in the eye to dry out and infection may begin. Upper respiratory illnesses can also cause the eyes to become infected. These conditions are best handled by a vet who may want to treat it with antibiotics.

Food List

Box turtles have specific dietary needs to ensure good health. A well-balanced diet is easily provided from a combination of common grocery store items and backyard biota. Following is a list of foods to give your box turtle. Most foods are acceptable if given in moderation.  Each feeding should include a food item from several food groups. For example, include a protein, a vegetable and a fruit, or a protein, a fruit and a green leafy vegetable. By varying the kinds of food you give your turtles, you are increasing the chances that they will get the mineral and vitamins necessary for good health. You also lessen the chances of them fixating on just a few foods, plus it is naturally for box turtles to have a varied diet.

Feed young turtles a small amount of food every other day. Adults can be fed every 2or 3 days in late spring and summer. Diet for hatchling box turtles is discussed in the breeding chapter. Regardless of the age of your box turtle, a feeding schedule should be made in advance. During the summer months when I’m trying to strengthen and add weight to my box turtles, my schedule may be like this: Monday, Wednesday and Saturday are full meal days. Other days I may feed a small snack where they might get a beloved treat like bananas or tomatoes sprinkled with vitamins. On Sundays the turtles receive no food. A day of fasting will not harm a healthy turtle. Of course, use your own best judgment. You may want to feed more or less often depending on the health or activity level of your turtle. However, clean water should be provided daily.

PROTEIN makes up about 50% of the diet. Protein foods should be cut up small enough so the turtle cannot get its fill of food with just one bite of protein. Mix the protein with the vegetables and fruits. All muscle meats should be sprinkled with calcium supplement that contains no phosphorus. Cuttlebone given to birds may also be shaved onto food stuff and left in the turtle's home so the turtle can forage on it at will. It is high in calcium and other trace minerals and should always be available to box turtles.

Use regularly—Natural live, whole foods like pesticide free earthworms, slugs, waxworms, beetles, grubs, sow bugs. Boiled, chopped chicken, feeder fish or beef heart.
Occasionally—Low-fat soaked dog kibble, soaked puppy Milkbones®, low-fat premium canned dog food, cooked lean steak, mealworms and crickets that have been gutloaded on dark greens, Prepared box turtle food products.
Less frequently—Pinky mice, boiled egg, tofu, low-fat cat kibble.
Never—Due to the possibility of contamination, fat content and salt: raw meats, fatty meats or processed meats.

VEGETABLES make up about 30% of the diet. Use the part of the vegetable that is colorful as it contains the most nutrition. Use fresh vegetables whenever possible and steam or grate hard vegetables before offering to the box turtle.

Use regularly—Summer and winter squashes, peas in the pod, sweet potatoes, okra, grated carrots, green beans, wax beans and cactus pads with all spines removed.
Occasionally—Mushrooms of all types, corn on the cob and tomatoes.
Less frequently—Bean sprouts, broccoli, cabbage, beets and cauliflower.
Never—Avocado peel.

LEAFY DARK GREENS make up 10% of the diet. Dark leafy greens contain fiber and many minerals and vitamins. Greens help keep the turtle gut healthy through their cleansing action. Always provide your turtles with greens.

Use regularly—Collard greens, mustard greens, dandelion greens, romaine, wheat grass and turnip greens.
Occasionally—Red leaf lettuce, endive, parsley, kale and Swiss chard.
Less frequently—Iceberg lettuce and spinach.
Never—Rhubarb, potato and tobacco leaves.

FRUITS make up the remaining 10% of the diet and are dessert for your turtles. Most turtles love fruits and each seems to have a favorite. Try to find your turtle’s favorite. If it is a finicky eater, use the fruit to entice it to eat other foods. Chop the favorite fruit into small pieces and mix it with things the turtle should eat but won’t. This way, with every bite of fruit it will also eat the required food. I sprinkle vitamins on the fruit as well.

REGULARLY—Grapes, apples, fresh figs, blackberries, raspberries, mulberries, peaches, crabapples, strawberries, cantaloupe, kiwis, cherries and persimmons, banana and most other fruits.

I don't mean to imply the above diet is the only way to feed your pet turtles but I follow the diet and have produced healthy box turtles with smooth shell growth and strong immune systems.  The effort a person puts into the diet is directly proportional to the health of the turtle.


Most box turtles live in geographic areas that require them to hibernate for three to five months of the year. During this time, food is scarce and outside temperatures are so low that box turtles cannot raise their body temperature high enough to maintain normal activity. Hibernation allows the box turtle to live until better times return in the spring. Hibernation is not a time of cozy sleep, but a dangerous time when bodily functions are barely keeping the box turtle alive. The heart rate slows, digestion stops and the turtle cannot voluntarily move or even open its eyes. Many unprepared wild and pet box turtles die during this period.

In the early fall wild box turtles will begin to search for a protected place to spend the winter. An ideal site may be in the south face of a hill that is easy to dig into and above water level. Or it may be under the sheltering roots of a large tree which will be blanketed with fallen leaves by winter or a deep, abandoned gopher burrow. It’s unlikely that your outdoor enclosure has an adequate spot for your turtle to hibernate unless you provide some additional materials. It’s also crucial to assess your box turtle’s health before you allow it to hibernate. There are many questions you need to ask and answer before your box turtle can safely hibernate. The first is should you even hibernate the turtle? If it is healthy, then yes. Hibernation helps turtles maintain normal thyroid activity, synchronize their reproduction cycles, and complete their normal life expectancies.

Here are do’s and don’ts for successful hibernation:

  • Do take the time to prepare a proper hibernation place for your outdoor box turtle. Don’t leave it up to chance.
  • Do choose an area that does not flood or collect run-off water. Your turtles could drown.
  • Don’t hibernate sick, light weight or young box turtles. Keep them indoors in a roomy, well heated tank and feed them all winter long.
  • Do protect your hibernating box turtles from foraging wild animals like rats, mice or raccoons and from other pets that may break open their hibernation boxes or dens.
  • Do check on your hibernating turtles once in awhile. You may find ill turtles above ground or the signs of wild animals foraging for food.
  • Don’t let your turtles hibernate in wet or soggy ground.

Hatchling box turtles that were born just a few months earlier are especially at risk. Many do not survive their first winter. Weaken or underweight box turtles often don’t have the necessary reserves to survive a long winter. Even the healthiest turtle may come out of hibernation too soon and be caught above ground by a spring snowstorm and perish. Many wild box turtles are eaten by foraging animals as they sleep, or freeze to death because they didn’t find satisfactory winter dens. You must be aware of all these things. Therefore only hibernate healthy, adult box turtles that have gained weight during the summer. Do not hibernate young, sick or underweight box turtles. Turtles that have worms or have respiratory illness will only get worse in hibernation. If you are unsure about the health of your box turtle, then by all means take it to a reptile veterinarian and ask for a pre-hibernation check-up.

If you hibernate turtles outside make sure they have areas of soft dirt and leaves to dig into that are above the water table and drains well. In late summer or early fall begin to mound dirt and add leaves to the turtle’s enclosure. This is also the time they begin to eat less and rest more. They are preparing their bodies for hibernation. Several times in September and October, I place vitamin A (cod liver oil) onto favorite foods and feed it to them. This will insure they don’t become vitamin A deficient. In the last weeks before cooler weather appear I stop feeding protein products and give them mostly dark, leafy vegetables, carrots and apples. Once in the ground you can place an old carpet piece over them to add a little more insulation. Make sure there is plenty of fresh water in the pen, in case one comes out for a drink.

Depending on where you live in the United States, you may need to do more to prepare your outdoor enclosure for hibernating turtles. In the Northeast or other states that have long, cold winters, you will need to make more preparations for the turtle’s hibernation. They must be able to dig into the ground deep enough to hibernate below the freeze line. This level changes during the winter so you need to prepare the ground deeply so the turtle can go down as far as it needs to. Wild turtles have been found hibernating at depths of 2 feet. This area should be protected from drying winds and snow drifts. Some people who live in areas that have very cold and long winters build artificial hibernation dens for their turtles. This is a good way to hibernate your box turtle since it allows you to monitor the temperature and health of your box turtles. I live in the Midwest and the wintertime temperatures go below freezing. I hibernate my turtles in a hibernation box like the one pictured above. This way I can check on them often and control the temperature. This method of hibernation is also recommended for box turtles that live in areas where they are not native.

If you are going to hibernate a box turtle you’ve kept inside all year, be sure to stop feeding it two weeks before you place it in the box. During the two weeks you must also slowly reduce the temperature inside its living quarters by 5 degree increments so its body has a chance to acclimate to hibernation temperature. Once it becomes sedentary you may place it into the hibernation box.

To build your own hibernation box you will need two boxes, one large and the second one small enough to fit inside the large one, but big enough for the box turtle and some moist sphagnum moss. Fill the large box half way with crumpled newspaper. Fill the smaller box (waterproof) with moist moss. Place your box turtle in the small box after it has already begun to hibernate on its own. Close the box but do not seal it. Put the small box into the larger box and pack the sides and top with more crumpled newspaper. Do not seal the box with tape. Remember, the turtle needs to breathe. Store the boxes in an area that is around 45-50°F. Be sure the temperature doesn’t fluctuate a lot, but is steady, like an unheated basement, attic or crawl space. An unheated detached garage may get too cold. Check the temperature of the hibernation area for several weeks before leaving the boxes there. The artificial den should not be set directly on the ground. Use a plastic tarp so ground creatures cannot eat their way into the box. Check up on the turtle weekly. Listen to the box for sounds of the turtle moving around; it may need a drink. If it wakes up too often, the temperature may be too warm or it may be sick. Assess its health and decide if you can continue to hibernate it or if you should bring it out of hibernation and overwinter it indoors.

If you overwinter the box turtle you must bring its core body temperature up slowly over the course of a week and begin to feed it regularly and keep it warm with summer-like temperatures and high humidity. Overwintered box turtles should not be kept at sub-optimum temperatures and allowed to remain sluggish. This causes them to use too much of their energy reserves and they will become weaker.



 The box turtle (Terrapene), or box tortoise is a genus of turtle native to North America (United States and Mexico). The 12 taxa which are distinguished in the genus are distributed over four species. It is largely characterized by having a domed shell, which is hinged at the bottom, allowing the animal to close its shell tightly to escape predators. Box turtles have become popular pets, although their needs in captivity are complex.


Taxonomy and genetics

The genus name Terrapene was coined by Merrem in 1820 as a separate genus from the Emydes for those species which had a sternum which was separated into two or three divisions and which could move these parts independently. He placed in this genus amongst others Terrapene boscii (now accepted to be Kinosternon subrubrum subrubrum) and Terrapene carolina (but under the name Terrapene clausa). Also several Asian box turtles have been (mis)classified within the genus Terrapene: e.g. Terrapene bicolor (now Cuora amboinensis couro) and Terrapene culturalia (now Cuora flavomarginata). Currently four species are classified within the genus and twelve taxa are distinguished:

Box turtles are diploids and have 50 chromosomes.


Size difference between the two subspecies of Terrapene ornata: T.c.ornata (left) and T.c.luteola (right).
Plastron of T.c.carolina showing the hinge (H) between abdominal (abd) and pectoral (pect) scales. Also the other scales (an=anal, fem=femural, hum=huminal, gul=gular) are shown.

All box turtles have a highly domed carapace. All species are domed, with a first central scute at an angle of more than 50° while the next central scutes are often flattened. While T. carolina species have a prominent medial keel (a ridge over the length of the carapace), this feature is (nearly) absent in the other species. As a result of the hinge in their plastron (between the abdominal and pectoral scales), box turtles can close very tightly to protect themselves from predators. The plastral formula (size relation between the scales) varies between species, but the order of the largest three scutes is anal > abdominal > gular in all species. The ability to close develops when it is one quarter grown and is generally only lost due to corpulence. Based on morphological characteristics, two distinct lineages can be distinguished: the ornata/nelsoni lineage as well as the carolina/coahuila cluster. The ornata/nelsoni cluster is the smallests (maximum carapace lengths of 14–15 cm), while the other cluster is larger (with T.c.major with a carapace length of 20 cm). The radiation pattern varies strongly: from the none-patterned C. coahuila, to the characteristic stripes in C. ornata and the yellow/brown spots in C. nelsoni. C. carolina is the most varied genus with spots, bars and lines which pattern often also varies from scute to scute.

Ecology and Behaviour


Three images of eastern box turtles laying eggs
T. c. carolina laying eggs


Life cycle and predation

Rings on the scutes of T.c.triunguis. Rings can be used to estimate the age of box turtles in their early years.

Once maturity is reached, the chance of death seems not to increase with age. The survivorship curve of box turtles is therefore probably similar to that of other long-living turtles. The average life span of adult box turtles is 50 years, while a significant proportion lives over 100 years. The age of a growing box turtle in the wild can be roughly estimated by counting the growth rings on the scutes; the plastron is the best place to do this because it also allows examination of wear pattern. However, the rate of 1 ring per growth season has not been fully confirmed, and estimates beyond 20 years are unreliable because the scutes is usually worn smooth. Box turtle eggs are flexible, oblong and are (depending on the taxon) on average 2–4 cm long weighing 5-11 g. The normal clutch size is 1-7 eggs. In captivity and in the southern end of their range, box turtles can have more than one clutch per year, while the average clutch size is larger in more northern populations. Turtles can defend themselves from predation by hiding, closing their shell and biting. The risk of death is greatest in small animals due to their size and weaker carapace and plastron. While the shell of an adult box turtle is impenetrable to virtually any animal, they do not always close in a case of threat. Common predators are mammals like minks, skunks, raccoons, dogs and rodents, but also birds (e.g. crows, ravens) and snakes (e.g. racers, cottonmouths) are known to kill box turtles.


North American box turtles are omnivores with a very varied diet as box turtles "basically eat anything it can catch". Invertebrates (amongst others insects, earth worms, millipedes) form the principal component, but the diet also consists for a large part (reports range from 30-90%) of vegetation. The diet is amended with fruits (amongst others from cacti, apples and several species of berry), gastropods (Heliosoma, Succinea). While reports exist that during their first five to six years, box turtles are primarily carnivorous, while adults are mostly herbivorous, there is no scientific basis for such a difference.

Distribution and habitat

Box turtles are endemic to North America. The widest distributed species is the common box turtle which is found in the United States (subspecies carolina, major, bauri, triunguis; South-Central, Eastern and South Eastern parts) and Mexico (subspecies yukatana and mexicana; Yucatán peninsula and North Eastern parts). The Ornate box turtle is endemic to the south-central and South Western parts of the U.S. (and adjacent Mexico) while the spotted box turtle is endemic to North-Western Mexico only. The coahuilan box turtle is only found in Cuatro Ciénegas Basin (Coahuila, Mexico).


Because box turtles occupy a wide variety of habitats (which both vary on a day-to-day, season-to-season, but also species-to-species basis), a standard box turtle habitat can not be identified. Mesic woodlands are a habitat where box turtles are generally found. T. ornata is the only species regularly found in grasslands, but its subspecies the desert box turtle is also found in the semidesert with rainfall predominantly in summer. The single location where Coahuilan box turtles are found is a 360 km2 region characterized by marshes, permanent presence of water and several types of cacti.

Prior to hibernation, box turtles tend to move further into the woods, where they dig a chamber for overwintering. Ornate box turtles dig chambers up to 50 centimeters, while Eastern box turtles hibernate at depth of about 10 centimeters. The location for overwintering can be up to 0.5 km from the summer habitat and is often in close proximity to that of the previous year. In more southern locations, turtles are active year-round, as has been observed for T. coahuila and T.c.major'. Others box turtles in higher temperatures are more active (T.c.yukatana) or only active during the wet seasons.


Box turtles appeared "abruptly in the fossil record, essentially in modern form". The absence of strong changes in their morphology might indicate that they are a generalist species. It is therefore complicated to establish how their evolution from other turtles took place. The oldest finds of fossilized box turtles were found in Nebraska (U.S.), date from about 15 million years before present (in the miocene)and resemble the aquatic species T. coahuila most, which indicates that the common ancestor was also an aquatic species. Fossilized specimens of T. ornata and T. carolina were dated circa 5 million years before present and indicated that those main lineages also already diverged within the miocene. The only recognized extinct subspecies (T.c. putnami) dates from the pliocene and was with a carapace length of 30 cm much larger than any other species.

Interaction with humans

Conservation status

As the conservation status is defined for species and not for a genus, differences exist between the different genera. Terrapene coahuila is -as it is endemic only to Coahuila- classified as endangered. While the range reduced with 40% to 360 km2 in the past 40–50 years, the number of species reduced from "well over 10,000" to circa 2,500 in 2002. The most widely distributed species Terrapene carolina is classified as vulnerable, while Terrapene ornata is in a lower category as near threatened. For Terrapene nelsoni not sufficient information is available for classification.

Sniffer dogs have been trained to find and track box turtles as part of conservation efforts.

Box Turtles as Pets

Most turtle and tortoise societies recommend against box turtles as pets for small children. Box turtles are easily stressed by over-handling and require more care than is generally thought. Box turtles can be injured by dogs and cats so special care must be taken to protect them from household pets. Box turtles require an outdoor enclosure, consistent exposure to the sun and a varied diet. Without these, a turtle's growth can be stunted and its immune system weakened.

A 3-year study in Texas indicated that over 7,000 box turtles were taken from the wild for commercial trade. A similar study in Louisiana found that in a 41-month period, nearly 30,000 box turtles were taken from the wild for resale. Once captured, turtles are often kept in poor conditions where up to half of them die. Those living long enough to be sold may suffer from conditions such as malnutrition, dehydration, and infection.

Indiana and other states have laws against collecting the turtles from the wild. In many states, it is illegal to keep them without a permit. Collecting box turtles from the wild may damage their populations, as these turtles have a low reproduction rate.

State Reptiles


Box turtles are official state reptiles of four U.S. states. North Carolina and Tennessee honor the eastern box turtle. Missouri names the three-toed box turtle. Kansas honors the ornate box turtle.

In Pennsylvania, the eastern box turtle made it through one house of the legislature, but failed to win final naming in 2009. In Virginia, bills to honor the eastern box turtle failed in 1999 and then in 2009. For the most recent failure, a Republican legislator criticized the creature for being cowardly because of its shell. However, the main problem in Virginia was that the creature was too closely linked to neighbor state North Carolina.


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