Michigan State University masthead

eastern box turtle

eastern box turtle
Terrapene carolina carolina

Image of eastern box turtle (male)Description

This is a small land turtle with a domed, helmet-shaped carapace and a hinged plastron. Coloration of the shell and skin is extremely variable. The carapace is usually brown with a radiating pattern of yellow or orange markings in each scute. The plastron can be yellowish, tan, brown, or black, and either plain or marked with lines or blotches. Skin of the head and legs is usually brown or black with streaks and spots of yellow, but some (especially males) may have the yellow or orange color covering most of the head and forelimbs. The plastral hinge allows the box turtle to close the shell tightly, completely hiding the head, legs, and tail. Most male box turtles have red eyes, while most females have brown eyes.

Adult Carapace Length:

4.5 to 7.8 inches (11.5 to 19.8 cm).

Habitat and Habits

This is Michigan's only truly terrestrial turtle. They typically inhabit open woodlands, often near water, but may wander into thickets, meadows, grassy dunes, and gardens. They will soak at the edges of ponds or streams in hot weather but avoid deep water and swim poorly. Most box turtles remain in a rather small home range (often less than 5 acres) for most of their lives, and they may live a long time -- some have reportedly passed the century mark.

Eastern box turtles eat a great variety of plants and small animals, including insects, worms, slugs, snails, carrion, mushrooms, berries, and fruit . The young are largely carnivorous, taking more plant foods as they grow. A liking for tomatoes, strawberries, and melons may occasionally attract these gentle creatures to gardens, but they are easily fenced out or transported away from the problem area. Well protected by their shells, box turtles rarely bite to defend themselves.

Image of eastern box turtle (male)Reproduction

Courtship and mating is most frequent in spring but may occur in summer and fall. Courtship behavior involves much nipping and nudging of the female's shell by the male. Females can lay fertile eggs for up to four years after one mating. Most nesting takes place in June, with 3 to 8 eggs being buried in an open, often elevated location. Incubation requires from 75 to 90 days. Hatchlings are gray or brown with a single yellow spot in each carapace scute. They spend most of their time hiding under leaves and other forest debris and are rarely seen. The plastral hinge does not work in very young box turtles, but they can give off a strong odor that may deter predators.

Range and Status

Eastern box turtles have been found in the southern and western Lower Peninsula. They are locally common in the southwestern counties but have practically disappeared from much of their former Michigan range. Conversion of wooded habitat to various human uses is the most serious threat to the species, but many box turtles are killed on roads or collected as pets each year. Eastern box turtles are listed as a "species of special concern" by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. They are protected by DNR regulations and may not be killed or removed from the wild.

Image of eastern box turtleAcknowledgement

James Harding
MSU Museum
Michigan State University
East Lansing, MI 48824
(517) 353-7978