Eastern Box Turtle Distribution, Habitat, Diet and Pet

The eastern box turtle scientifically known as Terrapene carolina carolina is one of the six subspecies within the species Terrapene carolina. It was given the name since it is an inhabitant to the eastern part of the United States.

Eastern box turtle

Eastern box turtle

All box turtles get their names from their ability to wholly enfold themselves into their shell, with a hinged section closing in front to safeguard their defenseless head.

This one of the species that is very difficult to keep as a pet, as compared to others. We would instead not recommend it to ‘newbie’ pet keepers. However, they are stunning and tempting to take home as a pet, “from experience they are best for photography only, and to be left right where they were found,” advises Reptile Magazine

Physical description and appearance

Eastern box turtle has a high-domed, rounded carapace (hard upper shell). It also has a hinged plastron (underside of the shell) that enables it to close the carapace fully. Typically, this reptile is black or brown with streaks or spots of red, yellow, orange white. This distinguishes it from other box turtles.

According to the National Zoo website, “its distinct coloring camouflages it among the damp earth, fallen leaves and other debris found on the floor of moderately moist forests.”

The exact skin color usually varies from one turtle to another. “In certain isolated populations, male turtles may sport blue patches on their cheeks, throat and front legs” notes Boxturtles.com.

Also, it has resolute legs with five toes in their front feet but has four toes in the hind feet (or, atypically, three toes) – this is another factor that distinguishes these subspecies from other box turtles. Their feet are to some extent webbed.

Also, they have a sharp-horned beak and a hooked upper jaw.


Averagely, they grow to 4.5 to 6 inches. However, specimens over 7 inches have been met. They are larger than other turtle boxes.

Sexing eastern box turtle

Conferring with thesprucepets.com, “it can be difficult to sex box turtles unless comparing males and females side by side.”

Generally, males are larger with shorter, thicker tails than females. Males possess short, thick, curved hind claws while the females have long, straight and thin rear nails.

Again, the plastron is somewhat concave in males and flatter in females. However, the carapace tends to be more arched in females than in males. Also, the males tend to possess more multi-colored patterns on the forelegs.

Reproduction and development

Customarily, these turtles take a longer time to mature. Many mature from the age of 5 to 6 years. The females can store sperms in the oviducts for four years, and thus, single mating enables the females to produce viable eggs for several years.

Habitually, the male and female will mate between May and October. The eggs are laid in a hole about 4 inches deep, and females dig these flask-shaped holes in warm places exposed to the sun.

Their reproduction cycle is somehow slow since they lay 2 to 6 eggs, and only a few will hatch and among the hatchlings, only a few will survive to maturity. Predators such as raccoons, snakes, skunks, and other medium-sized mammals will usually prey on the eggs.

To protect their eggs, after laying them in a hole, they then cover them with hutches and even soft sands. Usually, the incubation period ranges from two to three weeks.

Eastern turtle lifespan

These turtles usually live between 40 to 60 years.  However, those that have a lifespan exceeding 100 years have been encountered in the wild. Honestly, if eastern box turtles are not afforded good care, food, and habitat, they will die much younger than 40 years!

Distribution, habitat, and dangers

They are often found in the eastern United States from Maine to Florida, Great Lakes region and Texas. Other places include eastern Kansas, Oklahoma and around the Atlantic Ocean, all in the eastern United States.

They are predominantly terrestrial and live in a variety of vegetative areas. These include shrubby grasslands, marshy meadows, open woodlands, and field forest edges. Most of the time, you will find them near ponds, streams or areas with heavy rainfall.

When the weather changes, i.e. when the temperature rises, they will cool off by bathing in puddles and shallow streams. They could also burrow in mud for some days to avoid the heat.

According to The Nature Conservancy, “although this species is found throughout much of the eastern part of the U.S., the population is in steady decline due to habitat destruction and fragmentation, and the species is listed under special concern in many states.”

The species also decline due to road mortality, exhaustive recreational activities, and being picked as pets. Many states have strengthened their wildlife laws to help stop people from collecting wild turtles for a pet.

Behaviors and hibernation

These sensitive reptiles will retract in their shells as the first sign of danger. They would do that until they start to feel safe.

They usually have a home range equivalent to two football fields. This often changes frequently depending on the population and how favorable the habitat is. They live together and show no conflict with each other.

Although bellicosity between individuals is exceptional, contending males will fight each other as they bite each other’s shells.

According to Pennsylvania State University, their directionality movement is ‘one way’ and quite energetically directional! Therefore, if you rescue a box turtle crossing a road, please put it over on the side to which it was heading!

During summers, these animals are most active early in the morning or after rainfalls. When the temperature rises, they will shelter themselves in cool areas such as under logs, leave piles, mud, loose soil or uninhibited mammal holes.

During spring, these turtles will be an active day long and usually would bask in the sun to warm themselves.

Those in the southern region will be active throughout the winter. However, in the northern area where the temperature could be too cold, they would find hibernaculum (places where they can insulate). They will become lethargic and enter brumation or hibernation.

The period usually begins in October or November and stops in April when they surface again. “As temperatures fall in the autumn, eastern box turtles enter into hibernation (usually starting in October or November),” confirms the Pennsylvania State University

Eastern box turtle diet

These are wily omnivores that feed on various plants, fruits, vegetables, earthworms, mushrooms, berries, spiders, frogs, snails, lizards, insects, fish, small amphibians and animal carrion among others.

“Younger box turtles grow rapidly and tend to be preferentially carnivorous (for the needed energy), “ notes the Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute. The young ones will spend most of them in water since it is easier to hunt here.

They will finally move to land between five and six years when they mature and shift to more herbivores diet.

Some of the mushrooms they feed on are very toxic, and anyone who will eat a turtle who has just eaten these mushrooms is exposed to the health risks.

Eastern box turtle pet care and housing

As much as you may love to keep it as a pet, you must review the wildlife laws in your state since, catching, buying or keeping turtles found in the wild could be illegal in your area.

They are flexible and adaptable reptiles, but this does not mean that they are easy to keep in captivity. For proper eastern box turtle care, explore the following insights:


Typically, they should be kept outdoors. However, large indoor areas will as well be satisfactory if it will get sufficient light, artificial UVA and UVB light using Zoo Med Aquatic Turtle UVB Heat Lighting Kit or any other efficient brand. They require full-spectrum light for the production of Vitamin D3.

Box turtles should also be allowed to adjust their body temperature of their own. They can achieve this by moving to various parts of the enclosure.

In the enclosure, a sunny area (with a temperature range of 29-30° C) should be combined with a cooler shaded area (with a temperature range of 24-26° C) for temperature regulation.

The cooler area should have a moist area where the animals can submerge to cool themselves. The trick here is to try to mimic the natural environment.

Feeding the turtle

They prefer a natural diet for your pet. Try to provide her with similar when in captivity. Plants, insects, fruits, mushrooms, etc. will still do well. However, more importantly, provide your pet with a diet rich in 50% protein, 40% vegetables and fruits, and 10% dark leafy greens.

Don’t forget, clean water for drinking should always be available for the turtles. If you are uncertain about the appropriate diet, you can contact a vet or professionals from a nearby local turtle store.

Health problems in captivity

Usually, when in captivity, they are often disposed to respiratory problems due to changes in the environment. Symptoms including runny or blocked nose labored breathing, and foams are appearing around mouth and nostrils is an indication of a too dry environment.

However, proper and continued eastern box care will improve the conditions of our pets within days. You can seek medical assistance from your veterinarian in case of severe or prolonged health symptoms in your pet.