Three-Toed Box Turtle

Three-toed box turtle
Scientific Name
Terrapene carolina triunguis
Emydidae (basking, marsh, and box turtles) in the order Testudines (turtles)

The bottom shell (plastron) is hinged so it can close against the upper shell (carapace). This species has 3 (or 4) hind toes. The carapace is high-domed, usually has a top ridge, and is olive or brown with faint yellow or orange lines on the scutes (horny scales on the carapace). The plastron is yellow with brown smudges. Males have red eyes, orange on the head and forelimbs, a concave plastron, and a thick tail; females have yellow-brown eyes, less orange, a flat plastron, and a small tail.

Similar species: The ornate box turtle usually has four toes on each hind leg, lacks a ridge along the center of the top shell, and the top shell is usually brown with numerous yellow lines radiating from the center of each plate. It is more of a grassland species than the three-toed box turtle and is found statewide except for the Bootheel.


Carapace length: 4½–5 inches.

Where To Find
Three-Toed Box Turtle Distribution Map

Statewide, excluding the northwestern corner and extreme northern Missouri.

This is the common box turtle of Ozark woodlands. Generally a forest species, it’s also found on forest edges and brushy fields. Adults usually have a home range of 2–5 acres. Thousands of box turtles are killed on roads by vehicles. Overwintering burrows can prove inadequate during hard winters, and many turtles are starved or killed by humans trying to keep them as pets. Leave turtles in the wild, follow the speed limit, and keep your eyes on the road.

Young three-toed box turtles consume mostly earthworms and insects, but adults tend to be more vegetarian, eating a variety of plants, berries, and mushrooms.

Turtles have generally been declining statewide, mainly due to loss of habitat.

Life Cycle

Three-toed box turtles become active about April. Courtship and mating last from late April to July or later. The male courts by pulsating his orange throat. Most egg-laying occurs from May to early July. At dusk, the female selects an elevated, open patch of soil or sand and digs a hole with her hind legs. A clutch is usually 3–8 eggs, which hatch in about 3 months. There are 1–2 clutches per season. Box turtles dig into leaf litter and soil and go dormant to survive winter.

Of all the reptiles, turtles are the most admired by humans for their symbolic characteristics of slow, steady progress, longevity, and resilience as well as for their unique body form. They can live to be 50 or even 80 years old.

Even though adult box turtles are defended by their shells, the eggs and young provide food for many predators. Hatchlings are only about 1 inch long and are especially vulnerable.

Media Gallery
Similar Species

Where to See Species

Sycamore access is located along Bryant Creek on the downstream side of the Hwy 181 bridge. The area is adjacent to the privately owned historic Hodgson Water Mill built in 1897.
The Rocky Fork Lakes Conservation Area is located in Boone County approximately six miles north of Columbia on Highway 63 and one-half mile east on Peabody road.
Canaan Conservation Area is located in Gasconade County, near Bland. Take Route A about 1.2 miles north from Bland to the Conservation Area's southern most access road.
About Reptiles and Amphibians in Missouri
Missouri’s herptiles comprise 43 amphibians and 75 reptiles. Amphibians, including salamanders, toads, and frogs, are vertebrate animals that spend at least part of their life cycle in water. They usually have moist skin, lack scales or claws, and are ectothermal (cold-blooded), so they do not produce their own body heat the way birds and mammals do. Reptiles, including turtles, lizards, and snakes, are also vertebrates, and most are ectothermal, but unlike amphibians, reptiles have dry skin with scales, the ones with legs have claws, and they do not have to live part of their lives in water.