Lifestyle and Lifespan
All Box Turtles derive their name from the fact that they have a hinged plastron, which allows them to close their shell almost completely. The high domed carapace is often a brown to tan color with hints of white, yellow, red, orange and olive tones occurring in lines, blotches or spots. Turtles are usually 4-6 inches long and nearly 5 inches tall, weighing less than a pound. Males and females are sexually dimorphic in size. Males are slightly larger, possess a rounded plastron to assist in mating, and tend to have red eyes, although this is not always a reliable indicator of sex. Equipped with a hinged plastron, box turtles are capable of withdrawing completely into their shell and closing up like a box to avoid predation.
Able to eat mushrooms containing poisonous compounds which are not safe for humans or other animals, perhaps acting as a defense against predation.
Habitats: Found mostly in the Eastern United States, Box Turtles occur as far north as Michigan and Maine, South to Florida, and as far West as Texas and Kansas. Found rarely above 1,000 feet in elevation, preferring low land habitats where water collects. Commonly associated with deciduous forests having high leaf litter and moisture these turtles are often located near rivers, streams, ponds, lakes and other bodies of fresh water, however, they are not good swimmers.
Herbivore, some insects. Wild Diet: Juveniles diet may include worms, slugs/snails, grubs, beetles, caterpillars and carrion. As they reach maturity they begin to eat aquatic vegetation as well as berries, fallen fruit, and wild mushrooms sometimes considered to be poisonous to humans!
Ecological Role: Apart from playing a dynamic role in the food web of their ecosystem via population control of prey species and as a food item for predators, Box Turtles serve as a mechanism for seed dispersal. Many species of aquatic fresh water plants as well as Native Geranium, Black Cherry and Native Grape species are aided in their germination and dispersal process when seeds are passed through the digestive system of Eastern Box Turtles. Predators: badgers, weasels, raccoons, skunks and snakes commonly prey upon adult Box Turtles, while younger turtles are far more susceptible to predation by birds, lizards, and even domestic pigs, cats, and dogs.
Like most reptiles, activity is temperature dependent, preferring conditions that are moist, humid, and warm. Ideal temperature is 80-95°F and they are more active during rainy periods and immediately after it has rained. During drought, turtles may spend time in burrows and in excessive heat turtles will seek out shallow pools of water to soak in. In fall months turtles are observed basking in the sunlight for energy. In Northern climates turtles will enter hibernation in late October. In places like Florida, turtles are active year around.
Like most reptiles, behavioral adaptations are centered around temperature, basking in the sun for energy and soaking in shallow ponds to cool.
Box Turtles are often found hibernating together in groups of up to 10, and are generally tolerant of overlapping territory. Aggression and territory disputes between males in mating seasons are rare and non-threatening. Overall, box turtles are considered tolerant and sociable, however, young neonate offspring will often cannibalize each other upon hatching.
Maturity is reached at 7 years, however, fewer than 10% of hatchlings will survive. Beginning at 7 to 8 years of age, box turtles will begin to sexually mature. Mating begins in the spring as soon as animals emerge from winter hibernation. Males extend their limbs and neck as long as possible in a display to potential mates. During copulation, the male wedges his feet into the females shell and remains attached to the female for several hours and may be dragged along behind her as she moves about.
Young are born precocial and able to fend for themselves.
Although not considered endangered Nationally, several states including Michigan, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut and the Carolinas have listed the Box Turtle as a Species of Special Concern.
Due to a widespread, consistent and persistent decline of the species, the ICUN considers the Box Turtle to be a Vulnerable Species. The decline is associated with anthropogenic causes, or manmade causes centering on urbanization. Agricultural use of pesticides within a shared water shed has negatively impacted young turtle survivability due to malformed eggs. Introduction of synanthopic predator species, (species who live near and benefit mutually from human settlement and urban habitats) such as ravens, coyotes and raccoons, are increasing in numbers as humans continue to urbanize.
We have 2 Box Turtles in the zoo, who are used as education animal ambassadors, bringing conservation awareness to visitors and community members.
Box Turtles get their name from the hinged plastron (ventral shell). A turtle may withdraw into its shell and close the hinge making it hard for predators to eat!
Ernst, Carl and Barbour, Roger. 1989. Turtles of the World, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C., pp. 194-196.