Box turtles are popular pets, but what are they like in the wild? As it happens, there are over twenty species of ”box turtle.” These diverse reptiles are present in North America and Asia, with as many differences as they have similarities.
Have you ever wondered what happens when winter arrives? Reptiles don’t generate body heat independently and depend on the sun’s warmth. Some areas never drop below 60ºF, but others dip well below freezing for several weeks at a time.
- Even though they look and behave more like land tortoises, North American box turtles are more closely related to pond turtles.
- Asian box turtles are diverse, with different habitats and diets.
- Younger North American box turtles may be more carnivorous than older individuals.
What Is a Box Turtle
The term “box turtle” applies to over 20 turtle species. It can refer to one of over a dozen species in Asia and to any one of several species in North America.
Generally, box turtles have dome-shaped shells that range from low to high in dome height. Turtles can be omnivorous, carnivorous, or herbivorous; some species change their dietary preferences as they grow.
North American Box Turtles
Although they share many similarities with tortoises, these reptiles are more closely related to American pond turtles. The box turtles of North America have dome-shaped shells which hinge at the bottom. Their shell design allows them to pull their legs and heads all the way inside their shells and close them up to avoid predation.
These turtles are omnivorous and have excellent eyesight. They forage by sight and spot snails, insects, fungi, slugs, berries, worms, flowers, frogs, fish, salamanders, rodents, birds, snakes, and eggs. North American box turtles have also been known to scavenge on carrion at the side of the road, sometimes resulting in the turtle’s injury or death by a vehicle.
Young box turtles need more protein than adults. They’re mostly carnivorous during their first six years, over time, becoming more herbivorous. Even as adults, these reptiles will eat nearly anything the opportunity presents.
North American box turtle species:
- Common box turtle (Terrapene carolina) includes four common box turtle subspecies that inhabit many areas of the eastern United States.
- Three-toed box turtle (Terrapene triunguis)
- Coahuilan box turtle (Terrapene coahuila)
- Mexican box turtle (Terrapene mexicana)
- Spotted box turtle (Terrapene nelsoni) has two subspecies.
- Western box turtle (Terrapene ornata) also has two subspecies.
- Yucatan box turtle (Terrapene yucatana)
Asian Box Turtles
There are about a dozen Asian box turtle species extant today, plus a few extinct ancient species. The Asian species usually have more vivid colors on their bodies, and many have stripes down either sides of their heads. Their shells typically have three keels, and their shells are often more colorful than their North American counterparts.
Many of these turtles spend their time at the edges of streams, shallow swamps, or ponds with dense vegetation. Their dietary needs are also varied, and while most are omnivorous, some are carnivores.
Most Asian box turtles are in the Cuora genus, but the keeled box turtle is sometimes separated into Pyxidea as the only species in the genus.
Among the Asian box turtle species are several beautiful box turtles:
- Amboina box turtle (Cuora amboinensis) with four subspecies
- Yellow-headed box turtle (Cuora aurocapitata)
- Bourret’s box turtle (Cuora bourreti)
- Vietnamese three-striped box turtle (Cuora cyclornata)
- Chinese box turtle (Cuora flavomarginata) and its two subspecies
- McCord’s box turtle (Cuora mccordi)
- Golden coin box turtle (Cuora trifasciata)
Where Can You See a Box Turtle
North America is home to about seven box turtle species and at least six subspecies. Members of the genus Terrapene inhabit many areas in the United States and Mexico, ranging as far south as the Yucatan peninsula.
Their habitats range from forests to swamp edges to deserts. Box turtles are more common in the American southeast than in other areas but can be found as far west as Arizona.
These turtles are sensitive and easily stressed. They don’t stray more than half a mile from where they hatched. If someone moves it from that location, a box turtle may spend the rest of its life trying to return. Something so seemingly small can completely disrupt the turtle’s breeding cycle and its overall health.
Asian box turtles are widespread from China to the Philippines, throughout Southeast Asia, and in northern India and Bhutan. Some are more common than others. Despite widespread protections for the Asian box turtles combined with breeding facilities, they are still captured and sold for food. According to Cuora.org, 10 of the 13 Cuora genus species are threatened with extinction.
Their habitats are much more varied than their North American cousins. Asian box turtles range from being fully terrestrial to primarily aquatic, and everything in between. These turtles often inhabit marshy areas at the edges of swamps. Some of them are mostly aquatic, so they won’t stray far from the water. Regardless, all of them stay fairly close to a water supply.
Box turtles aren’t the most adventurous and don’t handle the stress of moving or capture well. If you want one as a pet, your best bet is to find a captive-bred animal.
What Is Brumation?
The short answer, brumation is the reptile version of hibernation in mammals. While the terms get tossed about interchangeably with a reptile, brumation is technically a little different in reptiles. Most reptiles use glycogen reserves to sustain themselves during brumation instead of their fat reserves; those are used more in reproduction than brumation. Mammals, in contrast, use fat reserves.
The interesting thing about using glycogen is that it’s a natural antifreeze. It’s what allows a few reptile and amphibian species to survive being frozen solid during the winter.
Like other reptiles, box turtles are ectothermic and have to maintain their body temperature by moving to and from warm locations. Regardless of whether it’s a North American or an Asian box turtle, both groups brumate if certain conditions are met:
- Daylight hours decrease.
- Average temperatures decrease below their body’s ability to function.
How Do Box Turtles Handle Cold Weather?
Box turtles in some regions may never need to brumate; southern Florida and Southeast Asia are two excellent examples. The temperatures in these regions may never fall far enough for the turtles’ bodies to feel the need for a long nap. However, those located in more northern regions at least slow down, if not entirely cease activity when the weather turns cold.
There’s a danger in brumation, however. If the box turtle hasn’t had enough food during the warmer months, it probably doesn’t have enough glycogen stored up to support its body through a long nap. In this case, the turtle’s body will instead cannibalize fat, muscle, and, in extreme cases, its internal organs.
How You Can Help
If you live where it gets cold enough for box turtles to brumate, they generally only need a spot with loose soil and some leaves under which to bury themselves. So, leaving some of the fall leaves down instead of raking them all up is helpful. The more aquatic Asian species often want to bury themselves under the mud or water. Here are a few more tips:
- Do not move it from its home.
- If you see one in the street, help it across the road in the same direction it was heading.
- Don’t help them by taking them home. It’s not helpful and can cause more stress than they can handle.
- If it’s injured, mark its location with GPS and call a rescue group. They have the resources to help.
Wild box turtles are best left to their own devices, and what we perceive as helpful can easily kill them.
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