Common box turtle

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Common box turtle
Terrapene carolinaHolbrookV1P02.jpg
1842 drawing
CITES Appendix II (CITES)[2]
Scientific classification edit
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Reptilia
Order: Testudines
Suborder: Cryptodira
Superfamily: Testudinoidea
Family: Emydidae
Genus: Terrapene
T. carolina
Binomial name
Terrapene carolina

See text

  • Testudo carolina Linnaeus, 1758
  • Testudo clausa Gmelin, 1789
  • Terrapene carolina Bell, 1825

The common box turtle (Terrapene carolina) is a species of box turtle with six existing subspecies. It is found throughout the Eastern United States and Mexico. The box turtle has a distinctive hinged lowered shell (the box) that allows it to completely enclose itself. Its upper jaw is long and curved.

The turtle is primarily terrestrial and eats a wide variety of plants and animals. The females lay their eggs in the summer. Turtles in the northern part of their range hibernate over the winter.

Common box turtle numbers are declining because of habitat loss, roadkill, and capture for the pet trade. The species is classified as vulnerable to threats to its survival by the IUCN Red List. Three states have chosen subspecies of the common box turtle as their official state reptile: T. c. carolina in North Carolina and Tennessee and T. c. triunguis in Missouri.


Terrapene carolina was first described by Carl Linnaeus in his landmark 1758 10th edition of Systema Naturae. It is the type species for the genus Terrapene and has more subspecies than the other three species within that genus. The eastern box turtle subspecies was the one recognized by Linnaeus. The other five subspecies were first classified during the 19th century.[4] In addition, one extinct subspecies, T. c. putnami, is distinguished.[5]

Image Country Species Scientific name Classified by Year
Eastern Box Turtle-27527-1.jpg United States Eastern box turtle Terrapene carolina carolina (Linnaeus) 1758
Box Turtle, NPSPhoto, R. Cammauf (9254982287).jpg United States Florida box turtle Terrapene carolina bauri Taylor 1895
Terrapene carolina major 02.JPG United States Gulf Coast box turtle Terrapene carolina major (Agassiz) 1857
Three-Toed Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina triunguis) (15064482276).jpg United States Three-toed box turtle Terrapene carolina triunguis (Agassiz) 1857
Emydidae - Terrapene mexicana (Mexican Box Turtle) (2).jpg Mexico Mexican box turtle Terrapene carolina mexicana (Gray) 1849
Terrapene carolina yucatana.jpg Mexico Yucatán box turtle Terrapene carolina yucatana (Boulenger) 1895
North America (no common name) Terrapene carolina putnami O.P. Hay 1906

Parentheses around the name of an authority indicate that he originally described the subspecies in a genus other than Terrapene.


hand holding a turtle up so that we see the bottom of it. It has a pleated look with noticeable hinging and bending of the lower shell, running crosswise.
The hinges of the box turtle's lower shell

The common box turtle (Terrapene carolina) gets its common name from the structure of its shell which consists of a high domed carapace (upper shell), and large, hinged plastron (lower shell) which allows the turtle to close the shell, sealing its vulnerable head and limbs safely within an impregnable box.[6] The carapace is brown, often adorned with a variable pattern of orange or yellow lines, spots, bars or blotches. The plastron is dark brown and may be uniformly coloured, or show darker blotches or smudges.[7]

The common box turtle has a small to moderately sized head and a distinctive hooked upper jaw.[7] The majority of adult male common box turtles have red irises, while those of the female are yellowish-brown. Males also differ from females by possessing shorter, stockier and more curved claws on their hind feet, and longer and thicker tails.[7]

There are six living subspecies of the common box turtle, each differing slightly in appearance, namely in the colour and patterning of the carapace, and the possession of either three or four toes on each hind foot. The subspecies Terrapene carolina triunguis is particularly distinctive as most males have a bright red head.[7]


The common box turtle inhabits open woodlands, marshy meadows, floodplains, scrub forests and brushy grasslands[6][7] in much of the eastern United States, from Maine and Michigan to eastern Texas and south Florida. It was once found in Canada in southern Ontario and is still found in Mexico along the Gulf Coast and in the Yucatán Peninsula.[8][7] The species range is not continuous as the two Mexican subspecies, T. c. mexicana (Mexican box turtle) and T. c. yucatana (Yucatán box turtle), are separated from the US subspecies by a gap in western Texas. Three of the US subspecies; T. c. carolina (eastern box turtle), T. c. major (Gulf Coast box turtle) and T. c. bauri (Florida box turtle); occur roughly in the areas indicated by their names. T. c. triunguis (three-toed box turtle) is found in the central United States.[7] The species has become extirpated from Ontario and Canada as a whole.[9]

Eastern box turtle
Terrapene carolina carolina
Florida box turtle
T. c. bauri
Gulf Coast box turtle
T. c. major
Eastern box turtle.jpg Florida Box Turtle Digon3a.jpg Terrapene carolina major.jpg
Three-toed box turtle
T. c. triunguis
Mexican box turtle
T. c. mexicana
Yucatán box turtle
T. c. yucatana
Three-toed Box Turtle.jpg CistudoMexicanaFord.jpg Terrapene carolina yucatana.jpg


angled downward view of a turtle facing to the upper right as she squeezes out an egg out the back. There is a distended part of her body far behind her half covering the egg.

Common box turtles are predominantly terrestrial reptiles that are often seen early in the day, or after rain, when they emerge from the shelter of rotting leaves, logs, or a mammal burrow to forage. These turtles have an incredibly varied diet of animal and plant matter, including earthworms, snails,[10] slugs, insects, wild berries,[6] roots, flowers, fungi, fish, frogs, salamanders, snakes, birds, eggs,[10] and sometimes even animal carrion[7] (in the form of dead ducks, amphibians, assorted small mammals, and even a dead cow).[10]

In the warmer summer months, common box turtles are more likely to be seen near the edges of swamps or marshlands,[6] possibly in an effort to stay cool. If common box turtles do become too hot, (when their body temperature rises to around 32 °C), they smear saliva over their legs and head; as the saliva evaporates it leaves them comfortably cooler. Similarly, the turtle may urinate on its hind limbs to cool the body parts it is unable to cover with saliva.[11]

Courtship in the common box turtle, which usually takes place in spring, begins with a "circling, biting and shoving" phase. These acts are carried out by the male on the female.[7] Following some pushing and shell-biting, the male grips the back of the female's shell with his hind feet to enable him to lean back, slightly beyond the vertical, and mate with the female.[12] Remarkably, female common box turtles can store sperm for up to four years after mating,[7] and thus do not need to mate each year.[12]

In May, June or July, females normally lay a clutch of 1 to 11 eggs into a flask-shaped nest excavated in a patch of sandy or loamy soil. After 70 to 80 days of incubation, the eggs hatch, and the small hatchlings emerge from the nest in late summer. In the northern parts of its range, the common box turtle may enter hibernation in October or November. They burrow into loose soil, sand, vegetable matter, or mud at the bottom of streams and pools, or they may use a mammal burrow, and will remain in their chosen shelter until the cold winter has passed.[7] The common box turtle has been known to attain the greatest lifespan of any vertebrate outside of the tortoises. One specimen lived to be at least 138 years of age.[13]

Human interaction[edit]


Although the common box turtle has a wide range and was once considered common, many populations are in decline as a result of a number of diverse threats. Agricultural and urban development is destroying habitat, while human fire management is degrading it.[8] Development brings with it an additional threat in the form of increased infrastructure, as common box turtles are frequently killed on roads and highways. Collection for the international pet trade may also impact populations in some areas.[7][14] The life history characteristics of the common box turtle (long lifespan and slow reproductive rate)[7] make it particularly vulnerable to such threats. The common box turtle is therefore classified as a vulnerable species on the IUCN Red List.[8] The common box turtle is also listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), meaning that international trade in this species should be carefully monitored to ensure it is compatible with the species' survival.[15] In addition, many U.S. states now regulate or prohibit the taking of this species.[7] NatureServe considers it Secure.[16]

This species also occurs in a number of protected areas, some of which are large enough to protect populations from the threat of development, while it may also occur in the Sierra del Abra Tanchipa Biosphere Reserve, Mexico. Conservation recommendations for the common box turtle include establishing management practices during urban developments that are sympathetic to this species, as well as further research into its life history and the monitoring of populations.[8]

State reptiles[edit]

"The turtle watches undisturbed as countless generations of faster 'hares' run by to quick oblivion, and is thus a model of patience for mankind, and a symbol of our State's unrelenting pursuit of great and lofty goals."

North Carolina Secretary of State[17]

Common box turtles are official state reptiles of four U.S. states. North Carolina and Tennessee honor the eastern box turtle,[18][19][20] Missouri names the three-toed box turtle,[21] and Kansas adopted the ornate box turtle in 1986.[22][23]

In Pennsylvania, the eastern box turtle made it through one house of the legislature, but failed to win final naming in 2009.[24] In Virginia, bills to honor the eastern box turtle failed in 1999 and then in 2009. Although a sponsor of the original failed 1998 bill,[25] in 2009, Delegate Frank Hargrove, of Hanover, asked why Virginia would make an official emblem of an animal that retreats into its shell when frightened and dies by the thousands crawling across roads. However, the main problem in Virginia was that the creature was too closely linked to neighbor state North Carolina.[26][27]


This article incorporates text from the ARKive fact-file "Common box turtle" under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License and the GFDL.


  1. ^ van Dijk, P.P. (2011). "Terrapene carolina". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. 2011: e.T21641A97428179.
  2. ^ "Appendices | CITES". Retrieved 14 January 2022.
  3. ^ Fritz Uwe; Peter Havaš (2007). "Checklist of Chelonians of the World" (PDF). Vertebrate Zoology. 57 (2): 198. doi:10.3897/vz.57.e30895. S2CID 87809001. Archived from the original (PDF) on 1 May 2011. Retrieved 29 May 2012.
  4. ^ Fritz 2007, p. 196
  5. ^ Dodd, pp. 24–30
  6. ^ a b c d Capula, M. (1990). The Macdonald Encyclopedia of Amphibians and Reptiles. London: Macdonald and Co Ltd.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Ernst, C. H.; Altenbourgh, R. G. M.; Barbour, R. W. (1997). Turtles of the World. Netherlands: ETI Information Systems Ltd. Archived from the original on 28 June 2011. Retrieved 19 July 2011.
  8. ^ a b c d van Dijk, P.P. (2011). "Terrapene carolina". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. 2011: e.T21641A97428179.
  9. ^ "NatureServe Explorer 2.0". Retrieved 20 April 2022.
  10. ^ a b c "Terrapene carolina (Florida Box Turtle)". Animal Diversity Web.
  11. ^ Alderton, D. (1988). Turtles and Tortoises of the World. London: Blandford Press.
  12. ^ a b Halliday, T.; Adler, K. (2002). The New Encyclopedia of Reptiles and Amphibians. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  13. ^ Wood, Gerald (1983). The Guinness Book of Animal Facts and Feats. ISBN 978-0-85112-235-9.
  14. ^ "Nature Serve".
  15. ^ "CITES". CITES.
  16. ^ "Terrapene carolina. NatureServe Explorer 2.0". Retrieved 9 December 2022.
  17. ^ "Eastern Box Turtle – North Carolina State Reptiles". North Carolina Department of the Secretary of State. Retrieved 13 February 2011.
  18. ^ Shearer 1994, p. 321
  19. ^ "Official State Symbols of North Carolina". North Carolina State Library. State of North Carolina. Retrieved 26 January 2008.
  20. ^ "Tennessee Symbols And Honor" (PDF). Tennessee Blue Book: 526. Retrieved 22 January 2011.
  21. ^ "State Symbols of Missouri: State Reptile". Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnihan. Retrieved 21 January 2011.
  22. ^ "Kansas Quick Facts". Archived from the original on 11 May 2011. Retrieved 8 February 2022.
  23. ^ "Ornate Box Turtle State Symbols USA". 23 May 2014. Retrieved 16 March 2016.
  24. ^ "Regular Session 2009–2010: House Bill 621". Pennsylvania State Legislature. Retrieved 25 February 2011.
  25. ^
  26. ^ "SB 1504 Eastern Box Turtle; designating as official state reptile". Virginia State Legislature. Archived from the original on 16 January 2010. Retrieved 25 February 2011.
  27. ^ "Virginia House crushes box turtle's bid to be state reptile". NBC Washington. Associated Press. 20 February 2009. Retrieved 25 February 2011.


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