Box Turtles and People

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Published on: Jul. 2, 2006

Last revision: Nov. 29, 2010

Three-Toed Box Turtle

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Ornate Box Turtle

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turtles are killed each year on Missouri’s roads and highways. They likely consider a road to be nothing more than an open, sunny spot in their otherwise natural habitat. If they happen upon a road or highway during the time of day when they need to bask in the sun, they will stop and bask. When a vehicle drives by, they become frightened and pull into their shells, a natural response. If they decide to move off the road and another vehicle drives by, they will again pull into their shells. This can go on for quite a while, until they either successfully cross the road or are killed.

Though motorists should always consider their own safety first, they can help by watching out for small wildlife on the road. Some folks go as far as stopping to move box turtles off the road. Although this has merit, it is important to do this in a careful and responsible manner. There have been reports of people causing accidents or being injured while trying to save a box turtle on a highway.

Box turtles have been living in the area we call Missouri for hundreds of thousands of years. There are many man-made situations that have been harmful to these small, colorful, silent and interesting creatures. Add to this the fact that natural predation (box turtle eggs are eaten by raccoons and skunks) and habitat loss further reduces their numbers, it’s a wonder we see any box turtles at all. The bottom line is that Missouri’s box turtles need all the help we can provide so they’ll be around in the future

Three-toed box turtle (Terrapene carolina triunguis)

The name “three-toed” refers to the fact that most specimens have three toes (and claws) on each hind leg.

The three-toed box turtle is primarily a reptile of Missouri’s forests and forest-edge habitat. It is a subspecies of the eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina), which is found in many eastern states. It has been found nearly statewide in Missouri, except for extreme northern and northwestern counties.

The upper shell (known as the carapace) of the three-toed box turtle can be colorful or drab, depending on its age. Younger specimens normally have an olive-brown shell with faint yellow or orange lines radiating from the center of each scale. They also have a few dark brown markings along the top of the upper shell. Older specimens often lack these lines and can be a drab olive-brown. They typically range in upper shell length from 4 to 5 inches.

The lower shell (known as the plastron) of the three-toed box turtle has few or no dark markings. The lower shell of the adult male box turtle (all species) has a dent, or round, concave area, which allows it to mount a female during breeding and not slide off due to the roundness of her upper shell. The lower shells of females are flat with no indentation.

Skin on the head, neck and front legs of three-toeds can be quite colorful, with patches of orange, yellow, white, tan, dark brown and black. This is especially true of adult males. Males also have red to reddish-brown eyes, while females’ eyes are brown.

Ornate Box Turtle (Terrapene ornata ornata)

The name “ornate” refers to the striking light-and-dark pattern on both their upper and lower shells.

This is a common reptile of Missouri’s former tallgrass prairie region. The upper shell is dark brown to nearly black with many yellow lines radiating from the center of each scale. The lower shell is brown with distinct yellow lines. Upper shell length typically ranges from 4 to 5 inches, with males being slightly smaller than females.

Head, neck and limbs of ornate box turtles are grayish-brown with spots and small blotches of yellow, orange and black. The eyes of males are red, whereas females’ eyes are brown. They are found throughout Missouri, except for the southeastern corner of the state. This is primarily a species of open grasslands, but it has also been found in the savannas and open, rocky glades of the Missouri Ozarks.

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