Box Turtles and People

By Tom R. Johnson | July 2, 2006
From Missouri Conservationist: Jul 2006

Out of the 17 or so kinds of turtles native to Missouri, none are as well-known as our two species of box turtles. Even folks who aren’t into fishing, hunting, hiking, bird watching or gardening have had opportunities to observe box turtles. Too often, unfortunately, such opportunities involve these reptiles trying to cross roads or highways.

The location of Missouri between the forested eastern United States and the prairies of the Great Plains has allowed plants and wildlife of the two regions to mingle. This is definitely the case with our two species of box turtle. The three-toed box turtle is closely related to a species found east of the Mississippi River, while the ornate box turtle has relatives to the west.

Turtle versus terrapin

The name “box turtle” refers to the ability of this reptile to tightly close its shell when frightened. It does this by means of a hinge located across its lower shell. When startled, the turtle pulls its head and limbs into its shell for protection. Then it moves each half of the hinged lower shell up to meet the upper shell, thus closing like a box.

The name “terrapin” is often used for box turtles in Missouri, though it isn’t quite correct. The dictionary’s definition of the word terrapin refers to edible, aquatic turtles found in fresh and brackish waters of North America. Box turtles should not be considered edible, nor are they aquatic. However, the word terrapin is used by people of the British Isles to refer to any and all species of turtles. This could be the source of the word usage in southern Missouri.

To complicate the matter further, the scientific name (genus) of North American box turtles is Terrapene. In reality, our box turtles are closely related to semi-aquatic turtles found in rivers and wetlands, such as red-eared sliders and painted turtles.

Box turtles’ diet

Both three-toed and ornate box turtles are fond of eating soft-bodied insects and earthworms, and the young of both species eat a higher percentage of these foods than anything else. However, there are some differences in the overall diets of the adults.

Adult three-toed box turtles eat more plant material and fruit than ornate box turtles. In the wild, they are known to eat strawberries, mulberries, black raspberries and blackberries. Mushrooms, tender shoots and flowers are also eaten.

Ornate box turtles living in a grassland habitat eat grasshoppers, crickets and caterpillars. Yet, they will eat wild strawberries and mulberries if given the opportunity.

Box turtle longevity

Because box turtles live on land and eat plants, people often think of them as being small tortoises. This has led to the belief that box turtles live a very long time, maybe 100 years or more. Missouri’s species of box turtles actually live an average of 40 to 50 years.

A 25-year study of a population of three-toed box turtles in central Missouri by Charles and Libby Schwartz showed that the oldest specimen in a sample of over 1,700 was 59 years old. Ornate box turtles have a shorter lifespan with an average age of 32 years (from a study in Texas).

When people and box turtles meet

There are times and circumstances when box turtles come in contact with people and, more often than not, it turns out poorly for these reptiles.

Turtles in gardens.

Many people who enjoy gardening have experienced box turtles getting into their crops of red, ripe strawberries or tomatoes. It’s easy to understand why box turtles frequently visit gardens in May and early June. There are few insects available at this time of year to eat, wild strawberries are scarce (and very small in size) and turtles are still trying to gain some weight after a long, over-winter dormancy. A garden with a nice crop of strawberries is too hard to resist for a hungry box turtle. Later in the summer, as tomatoes ripen, box turtles are attracted to the red color and the amount of moisture available in these fruits.

A simple solution to these problems is to build a low fence to keep box turtles and other wildlife out of the garden. Then, make sure the tomato plants have good, sturdy stakes or wire supports for climbing so that ripening fruit will be off the ground and out-of-reach of your neighborhood box turtles.

Relocating box turtles to new areas is not good for the reptiles. The new location may already have an established population with limited resources, and the transplanted turtles may not survive. Also, relocated wildlife have a strong urge to head back to where they came from, which can lead to them being killed on a road.

Box turtles as vacation souvenirs.

During their active season (April through September), box turtles move about their home ranges in search of food, water, courtship, an egg-laying site and/or a resting niche. While active, these animals become visible to people. Too often, folks visiting the countryside—both out-of-state visitors and residents—find and pick up a box turtle and take it home as a souvenir of their trip.

This is a problem on several levels. First, it is not legal for out-of-state visitors to capture, keep and transport wildlife across the state line without a permit. Second, box turtles are not very prolific, and their population can suffer from such a harvest of specimens. Third, box turtles do not do well in captivity, and the majority may be dead in less than a year. And fourth, some of the people who take a box turtle from Missouri decide to let it go in their area (Michigan, Ohio, South Dakota, etc.) where no three-toed box turtles are found. Obviously, this isn’t good for the hapless turtle, which will likely have a difficult time surviving. Please think twice about capturing our box turtles as souvenirs. A better idea is to take a photo and let them go where they were found.

Turtles in captivity.

Box turtles are small, colorful, make no noise and eat very little compared to other, more traditional pets. But reptiles in general, and box turtles in particular, have requirements that can be difficult to meet in captivity.

Without sunlight (especially ultraviolet light), a balanced, natural diet and a preferred temperature range, box turtles do poorly in captivity. Without proper care, the result is a dead turtle, or one with a deformed shell, upper beak and claws, and excessively low body weight. The animal may live in a constant state of near-starvation.

I’ve met many box turtle owners who maintain that their turtles are thriving, eat the same diet every day and have survived happily for over 20 years. All that’s needed to dispel this myth about contentedly captive box turtles is to compare a wild-caught, healthy box turtle of the same age and size to a long-term captive.

To be healthy in captivity, box turtles must eat a wide variety of foods that duplicate what they consume in the wild. This means foods high in vitamins and minerals with specific amounts of plant and animal proteins, a proper temperature so their food can be digested, and the correct amount of ultraviolet light to stimulate their skin to produce Vitamin D. The Missouri Department of Conservation asks that wild animals—including box turtles—be left in the wild where their needs are met and where they belong.

Turtles and traffic.

Many hundreds of box 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.

This Issue's Staff

Editor in Chief - Ara Clark
Managing Editor - Nichole LeClair
Art Director - Cliff White
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Writer/editor - Tom Cwynar
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Designer - Susan Fine
Circulation - Laura Scheuler