The Eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina) is a species of hinge-shelled turtle that lives on forested land in Indiana. Box turtles are long-lived, slow to mature and have few offspring per year. This, coupled with the high mortality rate of box turtles being hit on roads, has resulted in Eastern box turtles being a species of special concern in Indiana. Ongoing research by Wildlife Science Staff, funded through the Indiana Nongame Wildlife Fund, is helping box turtles in Indiana. Donations to the Nongame Wildlife Fund are vital to continue this research.
Eastern Box Turtle Identification:
- Small- to medium-sized turtle with a domed shell ranging from 4.5 to 6 inches long.
- The top of the shell (carapace) is variable in color and pattern but is typically marked with yellow to orange streaks and blotches on a black/brown/gray background.
- The bottom of the shell (plastron) can be yellow, brown or black, or a combination. The plastron has a hinge that allows the turtle to “box” itself in for protection against predators.
- The rest of the turtle’s body also may have colorful markings.
- Males have red eyes; females usually have brown eyes.
- Box turtles have a sharp, horned beak.
- The shell is permanently attached through the turtle’s ribcage.
- Box turtles have short-stubby legs and feet that are webbed at the base.
Eastern box turtles have been documented to exceed 60 years of age. Very old specimens may reach ages of more than 100.
DISTRIBUTION AND ABUNDANCE
The Eastern box turtle’s range covers much of the eastern and central United States. Box turtles are found throughout Indiana, but are more common in the state’s southern half. Populations are declining throughout their range. Habitat loss, road mortality and collection by humans are some of the leading factors in box turtle declines. Box turtles are protected in Indiana and may not be collected from the wild. Forests are the preferred habitat of the Eastern box turtle, although they may be found in grasslands and wetlands.
Predators of the box turtle include raccoons, skunks, coyotes, dogs, ants, crows, snakes and hogs. Eggs are especially vulnerable to predation, along with young turtles whose unhardened shells offer little protection.
The Eastern box turtle is terrestrial, spending most its life on land. Box turtles are most active in morning and evening. However, they also may be observed during cooler temperatures after a rain. During hot and dry weather, turtles will occasionally seek out shallow water. When threatened or startled, box turtles withdraw their head, limbs and tail into their shell and “box up,” pulling the bottom of their shell up against the top. Colder temperatures in October and November cause box turtles to seek shelter in shallow burrows, where they will spend the coming months in winter dormancy. Spring emergence typically occurs during March and April.
In Indiana, mating has been observed in late April and May, but may take place throughout the summer and into the fall. Female turtles normally deposit one to seven eggs in an excavated nest before covering them with dirt. The eggs hatch three to four months later. Hatchlings usually measure about 1 inch long.
Unlike other animal species, visual cues are critical for finding mates. A male must see and recognize a potential mate before approaching her. Therefore, high adult population density is critical for reproduction. Female box turtles may retain viable sperm for years, but the proportion of infertile eggs increases as access to male turtles declines. Even if a female does lay eggs, the eggs and hatchlings rarely survive. Box turtles do not reach sexual maturity until they are 8 to 10 years old.
The diet of Eastern box turtles includes fruits, berries, worms, slugs, insects, mushrooms and deceased animals.
MANAGEMENT AND STATUS
Recent initiatives have led to the protection of the Eastern box turtle in Indiana. Since 2004, the collection of Eastern box turtles from the wild is prohibited. A permit is required to care for captive specimens in the state. Conservation initiatives and habitat preservation will help protect this turtle from further declines.
Nationwide research reveals that Eastern box turtle populations are in trouble. Indiana and other states are taking measures to protect box turtles before they become threatened or endangered. Although Indiana does have a few healthy populations, they are scattered. New developments, environmental changes, chemical pollution, captive breeding and possession all negatively impact the long-term survival of box turtles in Indiana.
Other reasons why box turtles are regulated:
Displaced box turtles, either escaped or released, have a hard time surviving. Those that survive pose a threat to wild populations. Diseases occurring in captivity can spread rapidly in wild populations. When foreign turtles interbreed with wild turtles, genes are introduced that are less suitable for local conditions and weaken the box turtle population.
The long life expectancy of turtles makes having one as a pet a long-term responsibility. The keeper must care for it long after interest wanes. Unfortunately, most individuals do not consider the long-term care required for owning a turtle and turn them loose when they are no longer wanted.
Collection as a Pet or for Profit
Continued collection of wild box turtles greatly reduces another box turtle’s chance of reproduction and removes one more viable turtle from the breeding population. To ensure long-term survival, Eastern box turtle populations in Indiana cannot sustain additional losses.
Box Turtle FAQs
- May I collect a box turtle from the wild?
No. Regulations that became law in 2004 do not allow the collection of box turtles from the wild in Indiana. If you wish to collect one in another state, you must follow all rules and regulations of that state.
- Can I possess a box turtle as a pet?
Only if you acquired it legally, such as from another state.
- What should I do if I already have a box turtle?
If the box turtle is wild-caught from Indiana, please contact the Indiana Division of Fish & Wildlife at DFW@dnr.IN.gov.
Do not release the turtle into the wild. Its chances of survival are low, and it could transmit diseases to a wild box turtles.
- Can I possess a box turtle egg, shell, or other parts of a turtle?
The eggs of all native reptiles, including box turtles, are protected by law and cannot be taken from the wild in Indiana. The shell or any other part of a box turtle is included in the protection of box turtles in Indiana.
- What should I do if I find an injured or sick box turtle?
Sick or slightly injured box turtles should be left in the wild. Box turtles are surprisingly resilient to damage and disease. If left alone, they will, more than likely, heal on their own. If a box turtle appears severely injured, it can be given to a licensed rehabilitator or licensed veterinarian. You cannot possess an injured turtle for more than 24 hours to transport it to a licensed rehabilitator.
You can obtain the name(s) of licensed rehabilitators in your area by contacting one of the following:
- Call a wild animal rehabilitator permitted by the DNR. A list is at wildlife.IN.gov/5492.htm.
- Call DNR law enforcement at (812) 837-9536.
- Call the DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife in Indianapolis at (317) 232-4080.
- Call a licensed veterinarian.
- What do I do if I find a nesting turtle, nest or eggs?
Leave them alone. Box turtles can easily be scared away from nesting sites. A mesh fence may be placed around a nest to protect eggs from predators. This enclosure should be checked daily to ensure that newly emerging turtles are not caught. Do not try to excavate a turtle nest on your own. Disturbing the position of turtle eggs may kill the turtle embryo. If you see a nest that is about to be destroyed because of new development, you may contact a local rehabilitator for assistance. A licensed rehabilitator can raise the young and release them back into the wild. Do not try to rescue the eggs or nest yourself. Unfortunately, it may not be possible to save every nest.
- How can I help box turtles in the wild?
Leave leaf litter and fallen woody debris on the forest floor.
Protect and/or promote the protection of turtle habitat.
Obey speed limits to allow appropriate stopping time if a turtle is on the road.
If you see a box turtle trying to cross a busy road, you can pick it up and move it to the other side of the road in the direction it was facing. The turtle cannot be kept or moved to any other location.
Do not burn large areas during peak activity times for turtles.
Check yards before mowing or burning brush piles.
Report any collection or sale of box turtles to the Division of Fish & Wildlife at (317) 232-4080 or to the Division of Law Enforcement at (812) 837-9536. This can be done anonymously.