Eastern box turtles (Terrapene carolina carolina) can live in a wide variety of habitats from damp forests to dry grassy fields. They will often venture into shallow water and hibernate when it gets cold. They are found across the eastern U.S., from Maine to Northern Florida.
Box Turtles as Pets
Box turtle populations are declining, and they are listed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) as threatened. Many states protect box turtle populations and have laws against collecting box turtles from the wild. It is best to get a pet box turtle bred in captivity from a reputable breeder. Wild caught turtles do not adjust well to captivity and many die from the stress. Pet stores often carry wild-caught turtles.
The Eastern box turtle is usually about four to six inches in length. Eastern box turtles have a high domed carapace (shell) that is usually a darker brown with bright yellow, orange and/or red markings. On the plastron (the flat part of the shell or belly), there may be dark areas, especially on the margins of the scutes (the horny plates). The skin is brown with spots or splashes of yellow or red coloration, especially in males. There are four toes on the back feet.
Sexing Eastern Box Turtles
Males tend to have longer, thicker tails than the females. In addition, the plastron is slightly concave in males and flatter in females, while the carapace (the shell on the turtle's back) tends to be more flattened in males and more domed in females. The males tend to have more colorful markings on the forelegs, and the claws on the hind feet are generally shorter and more curved than those on the females. Males more often have red irises, but not always. It can be difficult to sex box turtles unless comparing males and females side by side.
As with other box turtles, Eastern box turtles can be very long-lived, possibly up to 100 years. Sadly, many in captivity will not survive that long. (Thirty to 40 years is more typical, even shorter with less-than-ideal care.)
Most aquariums are too small for this turtle. While it is possible to keep Eastern box turtles (especially hatchlings and juveniles) in a large indoor terrarium, they do much better in outdoor enclosures where the climate is agreeable. They should have easy access to a shallow pan of water at all times. As well, they should have access to hiding spots and loose litter for burrowing.
Temperatures and Light
If kept in an outdoor pen, make sure there are both sunny and shady areas available. The turtle should be able to move from cooler to warmer areas as necessary. Indoors, a terrarium will need a heat source as well as a UVB emitting reptile light. Provide a basking spot with temperatures of 85 to 88 F, maintaining the terrarium with a gradient down to about 75 F. The nighttime temperature should not drop below 70 F.
While box turtles are not aquatic, it is not unusual for them to wade into shallow water to drink and have a soak. Make sure a shallow pan of water is readily accessible (and kept clean) at all times. On hot, dry days, run a sprinkler or mist their pen for added moisture.
Adult Eastern box turtles are omnivores and can be fed a variety of items. Approximately half of their diet should be made up of vegetables, fruit, and hay or grasses. The remainder should be made up of low-fat protein sources; whole live foods are ideal (earthworms, slugs, snails, mealworms, crickets, grasshoppers), but cooked lean meats and low-fat dog food can be added as a supplement. Hatchlings are more carnivorous.