“What kinds of box turtles can you find in the United States?”
When I think of “turtles,” box turtles come to mind immediately. These personable reptiles are fascinating to observe but can be hard to locate.
Today, you will learn about the different kinds of box turtles in the United States!
A note on this list: as you’ll read below, a few species are not actually box turtles, but instead are tortoises. Because they’re both land dwellers, I have included them here. Hopefully, you will find them as interesting as I do!
6 Species of Box Turtles (& Tortoises) in the United States:
#1. Western Box Turtle
- Terrapene ornata
- 4 to 5.75 inches long.
- The carapace is high and rounded, resembling a helmet.
- Coloring is often dark brown or black background with radiating lines or dots.
Western Box Turtles live in open prairies and woodland areas in the United States. They prefer loose soil that is easy to burrow into and seek shelter under boards, porches, or other man-made objects.
Western Box Turtle Rangemap:
Western Box Turtles will eat almost anything they can fit in their mouths!
The list of food they consume includes insects, earthworms, crayfish, other reptiles including small snakes, birds’ eggs, carrion, berries, melon, and leaves. They have even been known to search through cow droppings in search of beetles!
Female Western Box Turtles have a unique ability when it comes to reproduction. They can mate once with a male turtle and keep the fertilized eggs safe in their bodies for over two years! Then, when the climate and season are most suitable, they lay the eggs.
#2. Eastern Box Turtle
- Terrapene carolina
- 4.5 to 6 inches long.
- The carapace is high and domed, usually with a ridge along the center running from head to tail.
- Coloring is highly variable, but a pattern of olive, browns, and tans is almost always present.
The Eastern Box Turtle can live for over 100 years under the right conditions!
A typical lifespan for one in the wild or captivity is about 35 years, but in an optimal enclosure, one could live for much longer without the threat of predators or man-made hazards.
In the United States, the habitat of the Eastern Box Turtle includes woodland areas and dense thickets. It prefers areas with lots of access to sunlight and food sources nearby.
Eastern Box Turtle Rangemap:
The vivid designs and relatively easygoing nature of box turtles make them attractive as pets; unfortunately, this is contributing to their decline in population. Eastern Box Turtles require very specific conditions to thrive in captivity. Special UV lighting, very large tanks with fresh, clean water, vitamin and mineral supplements, and relatively deep substrate to burrow are just some of the requirements to keep them healthy as pets.
Because box turtles are often taken from the wild in the United States for the pet trade, most states have prohibited the capture and sale of this species. Unfortunately, many pet turtles die due to poor conditions or are abandoned because they are too hard to care for.
The markings of the Eastern Box Turtle are so variable you may have a hard time recognizing one by the shell alone! Some have lines running from the center of each scute, and some have rings of dots that form a lace-like pattern. Other individuals’ lighter markings can merge so that the carapace is almost completely light-colored instead of the usual dark background! The video below demonstrates the huge variability!
Many people believe that the vivid coloring on the shell of the Eastern Box Turtle fades with age, but this is incorrect. The shell of most box turtles in captivity fades over time due to lack of natural sunlight!
#3. Florida Box Turtle
- Terrapene bauri
- 5-6.5 inches long.
- The carapace is high and dome-shaped, with broken, irregular light lines and a dark brown background.
- Usually, there are three toes on the back legs, instead of the usual 4.
The Florida Box Turtle lives in wetlands, marshes, and swampy areas with heavy rainfall. It prefers wet environments with plenty of water nearby, but will live most of its life on land where it eats many species of plants as well as animal prey. It prefers fleshy fruit such as low-hanging berries, and gastropods like snails.
Eastern Box Turtle Rangemap:
Even though it likes water, this species rarely enters the water deep enough to swim!
Unlike most box turtles that only lay one clutch of eggs in a season, the Florida Box Turtle can nest up to FOUR times a year! The average size of a nest is between 1-9 eggs.
Even with this prolific breeding adaptation, the overall population of the Florida Box Turtle is in danger and considered threatened. Automobile accidents, habitat loss, and predation are leading causes of the declining population of this species.
#4. Three-Toed Box Turtle
- Terrapene triunguis
- 4.5 to 5 inches long.
- Three toes on the hind limbs, instead of the usual four seen on other box turtles.
- The coloring of the domed carapace is uniform olive to brown, sometimes with light streaks or spots.
- Occasionally, a Three-Toed Box Turtle will also have bright orange or yellow spots on its legs and head.
Three-Toed Box Turtles live in woodlands, prairies, and thickets in the United States. They are highly adaptable and thrive in most environments. In fact, they are the only species of box turtle that remains in good health in indoor enclosures as pets.
Three-Toed Box Turtle Rangemap:
There have been reports of people being sickened from eating “poisonous” Three-Toed Box Turtles.
While the turtles are not actually poisonous, it’s been theorized that the Three-Toed Box Turtle can eat poisonous mushrooms. The mushrooms don’t affect the turtles’ health, but the toxins from the mushrooms can stay in the turtles’ system and make predators sick!
#5. Gopher Tortoise
- Gopherus polyphemus
- 6 to 9.5 inches long.
- The carapace is brown or tan, with grayish-brown skin that has orange or yellow blotches.
- In young individuals, growth rings are easy to see, but in older tortoises, the carapace is very smooth.
The Gopher Tortoise is the ONLY tortoise in the eastern United States!
Gopher Tortoises live in sandy areas where burrowing into the soil is easy. They are scavenging herbivores and consume a variety of plants as long as they are easily accessible.
Gopher Tortoise Rangemap:
Gopher Tortoises face the threat of a declining population due mostly to human development of their habitat. You may even come across Gopher Tortoise Crossing signs, which are part of an effort to protect this species! In the United States, rules and regulations limit land development containing Gopher Tortoises or their burrows, and it is illegal to relocate them without permission from Fish and Wildlife services.
The Gopher Tortoise makes extensive burrows in the sandy soil of its habitat and is considered a Keystone Species because of its burrows. Theyir shelters are used by up to 360 other species. Most notably, Gopher Tortoises often share their burrows with Eastern Diamond-backed Rattlesnakes!
To get a close look at a Gopher Tortoise burrow and check out the video below!
#6. Desert Tortoise
- Gopherus agassizii
- 8 to 15 inches long.
- The carapace is high and domed with no definite pattern but usually ridges in concentric circles on the plates.
- Coloring is brown, gray, or tan. The plastron is yellowish or light brown.
Desert Tortoises live in arid climates in the United States and can withstand very little rain and intense heat. They prefer firm ground for building burrows and also use rocks as shelter. Their burrows have a characteristic half-moon-shaped opening.
Desert Tortoise Rangemap:
This tortoise spends 95% of its life underground, conserving water and energy and only coming to the surface for food and to breed. It can survive ground temperatures of up to 140 degrees Fahrenheit! In fact, the Desert Tortoise is one of few species that can withstand the extreme heat and lack of rain in Death Valley.
The Desert Tortoise is an “indicator species,” one that shows the health of an ecosystem by its population health. Unfortunately, this species is in widespread decline throughout its habitat. Reasons for this decline and the decline of many desert species include urban expansion and off-road vehicle use that destroys their burrows, mining, and natural predation.
Do you need additional help identifying box turtles or tortoises?
Try this field guide!
Which of these box turtles have you seen in the United States?
Leave a comment below!