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Critterguy / Care / Box Turtles
Care: Box Turtles

The eastern box turtle is a protected species in Michigan. It is illegal to collect and keep native eastern box turtles in the state without a scientific collecting permit issued by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.


eastern box turtle (male)
eastern box turtle (male)
Basics of Captive Care

Box turtles (genus Terrapene) are small land-living turtles found over much of the eastern and central United States. They have domed, "helmet-shaped" upper shells. A hinge running across the bottom shell allows them to close up tightly, hiding the head and legs. Most specimens are less than 6 inches long. Their coloration is highly variable, but the shell is usually brown or black with yellow streaks or blotches; the head, neck, and skin is usually brown or black with yellow or white spotting, though yellow or orange color predominates in some. In Michigan, the Blanding's Turtle (Emydoidea blandingii) is often mistaken for a box turtle as they also have a hinged bottom shell, but they are larger (to 10 inches), more aquatic, and always have a bright yellow chin and lower neck.

The Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina) has several subspecies, but captive care is similar for most of them. Identify by range and coloration using a good field guide. Recommended: A Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians (Eastern and Central North America) by Conant and Collins (Houghton Mifflin 1991, 3rd Ed.). The Ornate Box Turtle (Terrapene ornata) of the plains states is difficult to maintain in humid climates (such as Michigan) and makes a poor captive.

Telling a male from a female box turtle is usually not difficult. Adult males are a bit bigger than females, on average, and are often more colorful. Many male box turtles have bright red eyes; most females have brown eyes. Males have a depression in the rear part of the bottom shell, and have longer tails than females. In males the vent (cloacal opening) is beyond the edge of the upper shell when the tail is extended; in females the vent is under the edge of the upper shell.


Box Turtles as Pets

Box turtles are usually gentle in temperment. Some individual turtles can adapt to captive conditions, but many do not. Though they are popular as pets, box turtles have special needs and are more difficult to maintain than many aquatic turtle species. Box turtles can live potentially long lives in the wild (40 to 100 years), but few captive turtles achieve such longevity.

Many box turtles that are sold in the pet trade are captured and shipped under crowded and stressful conditions; many die before reaching pet shops. Thus, turtles sold as pets may already have health problems that are not visible to the buyer. In addition, the mass collection of box turtles for the pet trade can severely damage wild populations. Several states (including Michigan) have laws which protect native box turtles,but reports of poaching are common. For these reasons the purchase of wild-collected box turtles from pet shops or reptile dealers is strongly discouraged.


More Detailed Information

Housing

Whenever possible, box turtles should be kept outdoors, in secure, fenced enclosures. This allows the turtles freedom of movement and access to direct sunlight. Provide a shady retreat and continuous access to clean water in a shallow container, for both drinking and soaking. A useful addition to a turtle pen is a deep compost pit filled with sanitary organic debris such as leaves, grass clippings, and vegetable waste, but never meat scraps or anything that would attract scavenging animals. (A compost pit can be used for winter hibernation, and will produce earthworms—a favorite turtle food.) Turtles must be protected from predators such as dogs, cats, raccoons, and large birds.

If it is necessary to keep box turtles indoors, they will need a large terrarium and access to fresh water in a shallow container. Use an easily cleaned bottom substrate such as newspaper or "artificial grass." Do not use gravel or sand (too abrasive) or corn cob or wood shavings (too drying). Include a pan of moist potting soil, as box turtles enjoy burrowing. Eastern subspecies need fairly high humidity but the surface should not be constantly wet. A ventilated cover over the terrarium can help maintain necessary humidity.


Temperature

For normal feeding and activity, box turtles require temperatures between 75 and 85° F. Indoor specimens should be given a range of temperatures in the terrarium. You can heat a portion of the floor (substrate) using an undertank heater or "hot rock", but turtles will still need an overhead heat source to allow normal basking behavior (such as a 40 to 60 watt incandescent bulb focused on one corner of the enclosure). Night-time temperatures can fall to 65- 70°F or so, as long as the turtles have about 12 hours of warmer daytime temperatures. Box turtles can be kept active all year indoors, but summer temperatures must be maintained. If you wish to hibernate turtles in winter, cool them gradually in fall and stop feeding (hibernating turtles must have empty digestive tracts). Allow turtles to burrow into a container of moist tree leaves (or a mix of potting soil and leaves) and place in an area where the temperature stays between 35 and 45° F. Never hibernate a turtle that is weak or in poor health.

Turtles kept outdoors in spring and summer will control their own body temperature, basking on cooler days, burrowing on hot or very cold days. As winter approaches they will stop feeding and seek a loose, well-drained spot to burrow in for the winter. You can provide a compost pit (see above) or loosen the soil and (after they dig in) cover them with a thick layer of fallen leaves or grass clippings. Make sure that the site is situated where flooding does not occur. In the wild in Michigan, hibernation typically lasts from October to mid-April.


Feeding

eastern box turtle (male)
eastern box turtle (male)
Box turtles are omnivorous, and should be offered a variety of foods. Wild turtles will eat worms, insects, slugs, snails, berries, and some vegetation. Captives can be fed these natural foods as well as fruits (melon, apricots, peaches, chopped apple), vegetables (tomatoes, beans, dark green lettuce, cooked or chopped carrots), and very lean meat (chopped beef heart, low-fat dog food).

In the wild, food availability tends to be seasonal, forcing turtles to eat a variety of items over time. Captive box turtles (like humans!) may prefer to eat certain favorite foods to the exclusion of a truly balanced diet. A turtle's diet must supply ample calcium and vitamins. Thus, it is a good idea to give captives a vitamin and mineral supplement. Commercial nutrient supplements (formulated for reptiles) are available through pet shops and zoo supply outlets. These are usually in powdered form and can be sprinkled on, or mixed in, moist foods.

Do not feed hamburger (or other fatty meats), packaged dried "turtle food", or head lettuce (which has little nutritional value). Most dog and cat foods are too high in fat to be suitable for turtles. Do not dig worms where pesticides are used.


Breeding

If you have a healthy adult pair of turtles, breeding is possible. A winter hibernation period is usually needed to insure fertility and induce courtship and mating in spring. In indoor situations, you should keep males separate from females except for brief visits; otherwise females may be stressed by frequent courtship attempts by the males. Females can remain fertile for up to four years after mating.

Females use their hind feet to dig a shallow nest in moist sand or soil in a sunny location. Most nesting in the eastern U.S. occurs in June. The two to eight thin-shelled eggs hatch in about 75 to 90 days. In indoor terraria, turtles must be given a suitable place to dig a nest or they may lay the eggs in water or on the surface, where they may be damaged or even eaten. Turtle eggs can be incubated in moist (but not wet) sand, sterile soil, sphagnum moss, or vermiculte. Good incubation temperatures are between 75 and 87° F. The sex of the hatchlings depends on incubation temperature. Within the recommended range, cooler temperatures result in more male hatchlings, while warmer temperatures (over 80°F) will produce more females.

Hatchling box turtles (about 1.25 inches long at hatching) are difficult to raise. They do best in a terrarium where they can burrow and hide easily. Keep the water dish shallow so they can't tip over and drown. Small worms and slugs are favored foods for baby box turtles.


Health Problems

Most health problems in pet box turtles result from poor nutrition or inadequate housing. Turtles purchased in pet shops are frequently in a weakened state due to stress, a lack of good food, crowding, and exposure to unsuitable temperatures. Many of these eventually become ill and die, but some can recover with proper care and treatment. Box turtles may survive for several weeks or even months on a poor or inadequate diet, but can reach the point where death is likely long before visible symptoms develop. Short fasts are not unusual, but a refusual to eat for more than a few days (at normal temperatures) or a noticeable weight loss is a cause for concern.

A turtle that gasps with open mouth, has a runny nose, or swollen eyes, probably has a respiratory infection, which can be fatal if left untreated. Such infections are often related to exposure to low temperatures or poor nutrition, especially a lack of vitamin A. Respiratory infections are treated with antibiotics, prescribed and usually administered by a veterinarian experienced with reptile diseases.

Box turtles often develop swollen (abscessed) eardrums or limbs, indicating a localized infection. Abscesses can interfere with the turtle's feeding or movement, and lead to life-threatening septicemia. It is best to have abscesses treated by a veterinarian. Treatment usually involves surgical cleaning of the affected area and administration of antibiotics.

A common problem with wild-caught turtles is infestation by flies, especially botflies. The insects may lay eggs in wounds, or under the turtle's skin. The maggots that hatch often appear as raised lumps on the skin. They can cause severe tissue damage, paralysis, and death. Excision by a veterinarian under sterile conditions is usually required.

Captive box turtles often develop overgrown beaks and claws. If a turtle's beak becomes so overgrown that it impairs feeding, it can be gently filed down with a nail file (assuming that the turtle will not pull its head in too quickly). Overly long claws can be trimmed with a toenail clipper. Avoid cutting too far and hitting the tiny blood vessels in the center of the claw.

"Soft-shell" and shell curling in young turtles is caused by nutritional imbalances, especially calcium deficiency. A balanced diet, with vitamin and mineral supplementation when necessary, can correct the problem.

There are many other health problems that affect box turtles, including internal parasites, "shell-rot", and other forms of infection. Good husbandry will prevent most diseases. Consult a veterinarian trained in reptile diseases and treatment before a minor problem becomes life-threatening for your pet. Zoological parks, nature centers, and university herpetology departments may be able to offer advice or recommend experienced veterinarians.


Note: This information was written so that those who obtain box turtles legally can maintain them in good health. The capture of wild box turtles by individuals or for the commercial pet trade is illegal in many states and always to be deplored. Wild box turtles may not be collected in Michigan! Turtles are not suitable pets for small children—turtles are not "toys" and have no need for "play".


For More Information

Check out our Critter Field Guide or obtain a good written field guide.


Recommended Books

Michigan Turtles and Lizards by J. H. Harding and J. A. Holman. 1990. Michigan State University Cooperative Extension Service, East Lansing, Bulletin E-2234.

Amphibians and Reptiles of the Great Lakes Region by J.H. Harding. 1997. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor.

A Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of Eastern and Central North America by R. Conant and J.T. Collins. 3rd Ed. (1998, 1991) Houghton-Mifflin, Boston.


eastern box turtle
eastern box turtle
Acknowledgement

James Harding
MSU Museum
Michigan State University
East Lansing, MI 48824
(517) 353-7978
hardingj@msu.edu

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