Box Turtle


Terrapene carolina
Order: Testudines

Husbandry Information

Housing Requirements

  • Temperature, Humidity, & Lighting:
    • Temperature: 70-90 F
    • Humidity: 60-80%
    • Lighting: need at least 5% UVA/UVB lighting
  • Substrate: sphagnum moss and vermiculite

Diet Requirements

  • In the wild, box turtles eat insects and other small creatures (worms and slugs are a favorite,) leafy plants, berries, and other fruts.
  • Under human care, they are fed an Omnivore’s salad and nightcrawlers.

Veterinary Concerns

  • Juveniles may need extra calcium supplementation as they grow. They’re highly carnivorous as juveniles and become less so as adults.

Notes on Enrichment & Training


Colony or Breeding Management

Notes species is housed or managed socially or for breeding purposes.

Individual Identification

Dimorphism or practiced ways to individually mark species (such as those in colonies, like giant millipedes).

Programmatic Information


hot water bottle

Temperature Guidelines

  • Brandywine Zoo: During cool weather (under 65°F), supplemental heat is provided with a hot water bottle set to one side of the cooler. Wrap bottle with newspaper for turtles traveling with the bottle inside their container, to make cleanups easier in the case of defecation while traveling. Otherwise, place hot water bottle on the outside of their travel box that is placed inside a secondary cooler.



  • Brandywine Zoo: reptiles travel in a stackable Coleman style cooler that has been amended with extra ventilation holes on the lid (with a wood-burning tool). With box turtles, the cooler is lined with newspaper.
  •   cooler

Tips on Presentation

  • Never flip over on their backs, but instead raise vertically to show/display their plastron hinge.

Touching Techniques

Tips on Handling


Potential Messaging

  • In general, animals seen at the zoo do not make good pets. Most have specialized dietary, veterinary, housing, and social needs that are difficult or impossible for even dedicated pet owners to meet. Always ensure that your future pet has not been taken from the wild. Captured animals are typically mistreated by profit-motivated traffickers and dealers, resulting in many animal deaths; well-meaning animal lovers may feel like they are rescuing animals by purchasing them but are really perpetuating the cruelty. In addition, many exotic pets are released by their owners when they become too dangerous or demanding, often with devastating effects on local ecosystems. Animals that should never be kept as pets include all bats, primates, and exotic carnivores. Birds, fish, and reptiles have specialized needs, are frequently wild-caught, and damage the local environment if released; guests should be advised to educate themselves and proceed with caution. Domestic dogs and cats are almost always the best option! Many deserving animals are available for adoption at animal shelters.

Acquisition Information

This species is widely available from wildlife rehabilitators.

Comments from the Rating System

  • Buffalo Zoo: we have the Eastern subspecies
  • Children’s Zoo at Celebration Square: We use a Gulf Coast box turtle (T. c. major)
  • Pittsburgh Zoo: We use a Gulf Coast box turtle (T. c. major)
  • Zoo America: Ours are picky eaters!
  • Zoo New England, Stone Zoo: A great native species that can be used outside for more of the year. Great adaptations to talk about!
  • Brandywine Zoo: We have Eastern subspecies, acquired at ages 2 and 3 yrs from local rehabilitator.

Natural History Information

Range and Habitat

Common box turtles can be found throughout the eastern United States and Mexico. They can live in a wide variety of habitats, from wooded swamps to dry, grassy fields. They are most abundant and healthy in moist forested areas with plenty of underbrush. They will often venture into shallow water at the edge of ponds or streams, or in puddles.

Physical Description

The carapace (upper shell) of a box turtle can be of variable coloration, but is normally brownish or black and is accompanied by a yellowish or orangish radiating pattern of lines, spots, or blotches. Skin coloration, like that of the shell, is variable, but is usually brown with some yellow, orange, or white spots or streaks.
The front and back portions of the plastron (lower shell) are connected by a hinge which allows the turtle to close itself into its shell when threatened, forming the “box” from which this species gets its common name. The plastron of the male has a curved depression to assist in mating, which females have flat plastrons. This is the best method of sexing adult box turtles, but sometimes you can also sex turtles by their eye color: males generally have red eyes, and females generally have brown eyes. (This method, however, isn’t fool-proof, as there are exceptions to this generalization.)
Superficially, box turtles resemble tortoises, but they are actually more closely related to many aquatic turtles. They belong in the same Family as spotted turtles, bog turtles, painted turtles, sliders, cooters, and diamondback terrapins.
The maximum length a common box turtle can attain is 7 to 8 inches.

Life Cycle

Box turtles reach sexual maturity at 7 to 10 years of age, or when they are 5 to 6 inches in length. After mating, females will lay 3 to 6 oval-shaped eggs in a damp hole that the female dug herself using her hind feet. Eggs are generally laid between May and July. After laying, the female will cover the eggs back up and then leave the nest unguarded. 8 to 10 weeks later, the eggs will hatch and the hatchlings will dig themselves out to the surface.
This species might be able to live as long as 100 years, but a lifespan of 30 to 40 years is more common.


Box turtles are generally a land animal, but they will soak in mud or water for stretches of time. During hot, dry spells, a box turtle will spend its time beneath logs or matted vegetation while it waits for it to rain. In winter, box turtles hibernate in loose soil at a depth of up to 2 feet.
Home ranges generally measure less than 200 square meters.
Young box turtles are extremely secretive and difficult to find in the wild.

Threats and Conservation Status

Common box turtles are not currently endangered, but the future is a concern, especially due to threats from the pet trade and habitat loss. Although they are still quite common, box turtles age slowly, have few young at a time, and exhibit delayed sexual maturity.

Did you know…

  • Box turtles have a homing instinct that causes them to try to return to the place where they hatched if they are moved. As a result, when box turtles that have been taken as pets are returned to the wild, they will head straight for their natal grounds – a potentially fatal journey.
  • The common box turtle has six subspecies: Eastern box turtle (T. c. carolina), Florida box turtle (T. c. bauri), Gulf Coast box turtle (T. c. major), Three-toed box turtle (T. c. triunguis), Mexican box turtle (T. c. mexicana), and Yucatan box turtle (T. c. yucatana)


Cover photo: By Hornbaker Chelsi, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Contributors and Citations

  • The Philadelphia Zoo
  • Houston Zoo, Natural Encounters