The Three-Toed Box Turtle

By Noppadol Paothong | August 1, 2018
From Missouri Conservationist: August 2018

Driving through the countryside one cool spring morning, I couldn’t help but notice several slow-moving box turtles crossing the road, on the hunt for food, mates, and warm spots to bask in the sun.

Sadly, many box turtles never make it across the road, which they likely see as just another open, sunny area in their habitat. Road-building and other forms of habitat loss have contributed to the box turtle’s overall decline throughout its North American range. Getting to know the box turtle’s life cycle and habitat needs can help us do a better job of conserving it.

An Emblem of Longevity

Although box turtles face many dangers during the first few years of their lives, they actually live an average of 40 to 50 years. In a 25-year study of approximately 1,700 three-toed box turtles conducted by Charles and Libby Schwartz, the oldest specimen was 65.

While most Missouri turtles live 15 to 30 years, box turtles can live 50 to 80 years, and occasionally more than 100 years. Due to their long lifespan, slow movement, sturdiness, and wrinkled appearance, turtles in general are an emblem of longevity and stability in many cultures around the world.

Missouri is home to 18 species of turtles, including two species of land dwelling turtles, the three-toed box turtle (Terrapene carolina triunguis), Missouri’s official state reptile, and the ornate box turtle (Terrapene ornate ornata). They are found throughout most of Missouri (see map at right). The three-toed box turtle prefers a forested landscape with numerous open grassy areas while the ornate box turtle is found primarily in the prairie regions of Missouri.

The name “box turtle” refers to the ability of this reptile to tightly close its shell when frightened or startled. A hinged lower shell allows these reptiles to completely encase their head and legs, providing protection. The name “threetoed” refers to the three toes (and claws) on the hind legs of most specimens colorful or drab, depending on its age.

Younger turtles 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. Skin on the head, neck, and front legs of three-toes 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 typically brown to yellow-brown. They typically range in upper shell length from 4 to 5 inches.

Box turtles are omnivores, but their diets vary by season and the availability of food sources. They are known to eat earthworms, insects, snails, slugs, mulberries, strawberries, mushrooms, and green-leafed vegetation. Adults usually have a home range of 2–5 acres.

Differences between males and females can be hard to detect to the untrained eye. The lower shell of an adult male box turtle (all species) has a dent or concave area that allows it to breed with a female. In contrast, the lower shells of females are flat with no indentation.

Box turtles become active in April. Courtship and mating last from late April to July or later. The male three-toed box turtle 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 three to eight eggs, which hatch in about three months. There are one to two clutches per season. Unlike adult turtles that are protected by their shells, hatchlings are only about 1 inch long and are especially vulnerable to predators. Box turtles dig into leaf litter and soil and go dormant to survive cold winter months.

Because they are naturally docile, box turtles are a great way to help children learn to appreciate native reptiles and their conservation needs. These slow-moving, harmless reptiles are easy to observe and handle. While you may be tempted to keep one as a pet, box turtles, in particular, do poorly in captivity and have requirements that can be difficult to meet. It is best to leave them in the wild.

To help turtles thrive in Missouri, keep your eyes open for turtles in your path, especially in spring and summer when they are mating and nesting. These box turtles need all the help they can get to ensure their survival in this fast changing world.

Missouri Turtles

  • 18 total species

Missouri Box Turtles

  • 2 species

Three-Toed Box Turtle | Terrapene carolina triunguis

  • Statewide distribution except for extreme northern and northwestern parts of the state/

Ornate Box Turtle | Terrapene ornata ornate

Statewide distribution,except for the southeasterncorner of the state, andis more common in thewestern and northernparts of Missouri.

Box Turtle Life Span

  • 50–80 years

Home Range

  • 2–5 acres

Eye Colors

  • Males are red to reddish-brown
  • Females are brown to yellow-brown

Did you know?

  • Hatchlings can take two or even three days to fully emerge from their shell. This process can be critical for a young turtle because it still has a considerable amount of nutrients to absorb from its yolk sac before venturing out into a new world.
  • A turtle’s egg tooth is used to break out of its shell.
  • Hatchlings can take two or even three days to fully emerge from their shell. This process can be critical for a young turtle because it still has a considerable amount of nutrients to absorb from its yolk sac before venturing out into a new world.
  • A newly hatched turtle is just 1 inch long.

Also In This Issue

Cecil Murray in a boat fishing
In Current and Black river country swims a walleye with unique genetics.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Angie Daly Morfeld

Associate Editor - Bonnie Chasteen

Staff Writer - Larry Archer
Staff Writer - Heather Feeler
Staff Writer - Kristie Hilgedick
Staff Writer - Joe Jerek

Creative Director - Stephanie Thurber

Art Director - Cliff White

Designer - Les Fortenberry
Designer - Marci Porter

Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner

Circulation - Laura Scheuler