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Meet Our Box Turtle

Meet our Eastern Box Turtle, Terrapene carolina.

He arrived in February 2016 and was named Shelldon by the Toadstool & Polliwogs preschool students. We received him from a regional wildlife center. The original owners no longer wanted him as their pet and dropped him off at the center. Even though he is a native species of turtle he can never be released back into the wild because he has been raised in captivity.

Shelldon happens to be a male box turtle. Male box turtles tend to have orange or red eyes and females have yellow or brown eyes. Box turtles reach maturity between 7-10 years and we think Shelldon’s was around 8 years old when we received him in 2016. But box turtles can live 40 years or more in the wild and in captivity, with some living as long as 100 years.You can get a rough estimate of a turtle’s age by counting the rings on its scutes, or the scales on its top shell. However as a turtle gets older this method becomes less accurate.

Unlike painted and snapping turtles that spend all their time in water, box turtles live in forests and along forest edges. Although native to Illinois they are rarely seen in the northern half of the state. They are more common in the southern half of Illinois but throughout the state habitat loss and fragmentation, busy roadways and the pet trade have reduced their numbers. Their home range tends to be about the size of a football field with younger animals or males traveling further in search of a new area to live or find a mate.

Eastern box turtles have high domed top shells with yellow or orange markings on a dark background. Their backbone and ribs are fused together on the underside of their top shell, or carapace, so unlike some cartoon depictions turtles never climb out of their shells. Adult box turtles are small and only reach 5-6 inches long. They are named for their ability to completely “box up” inside their shell to escape predators. A hinge on their bottom shell, or plastron, allows them to completely close their shells and tuck all body parts inside. Adult Box turtles have very few predators because of this very effective armor-like protection.  Turtles are most susceptible to predators like snakes, raccoons, foxes and skunks when they are eggs or hatchlings.

Box turtles like warm weather but not really hot weather. When it gets too warm or dry they will find a spot away from the sun, often in shallow wetland areas. Although they are considered a land turtle, they do like to soak in water or mud. We regularly soak Shelldon in a tub of water and he seems to enjoy it. Box turtles are most active during the day in spring and fall but in the warmer summer months tend to be active in the early morning and after it rains instead. In northern areas, wild box turtles hibernate in loose soil or pond bottoms during the cold winter months emerging again in April. The use of heat lamps in Shelldon’s habitat should keep him from hibernating, but like all reptiles he’s cold blooded and slows down when it gets colder, eating and drinking less.  (Scientists usually call the inactivity of reptiles in winter brumation, rather than hibernation which involves sleep.  During brumation reptiles will slow down and become less active due to the cold.)

In the wild Box turtles eat a wide variety of food including berries, fungi, snails, earthworms, slugs, insects and even eggs and amphibians. We feed Shelldon a variety of fruits and vegetables, like kale, strawberries, cucumbers and bananas. He gets protein in the form of earthworms or wax worms. He prefers protein over fruits and veggies, eating very few of the latter. (We give him vitamins to supplement his diet). His favorite fruits are bananas and sometimes strawberries.Turtles do not have teeth but they have a strong, sharp beak to cut their food like a knife and you may see them using their front claws to help them hold the food like a fork.

Breeding season lasts from April through October. After mating, females dig a 3-4 inch deep hole with their back legs and lay the oval, thin-shelled leathery eggs inside. Generally she only lays one to two clutches, or nests, of 3-8 eggs each year in June. The sex of the turtles is dependent on the temperature of the nest. Warm temperatures tend to produce females while cooler temperatures favor males. The 1- inch hatchlings emerge after 60-90 days and may overwinter in the nest.

Shelldon is a perfect example of an Eastern Box Turtle – with his bright red eyes and spotted shell and front legs. Like our other live animals, he’s an ambassador for his species, helping visitors to learn about local turtle species and their conservation.

Shelldon is a male box turtle. Males tend to have red eyes and females have yellow or brown eyes.

To learn more about Eastern Box Turtles, click here.