Texas is home to two different types of box turtles, the Ornate Box Turtle (Terrapene ornate ornate) and the Eastern or Three-toed Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina triunguis), A sub-species of the ornate turtle lives in Trans-Pecos west to eastern Arizona and south into Mexico is called the Western Ornate Turtle (Terrapene ornata luteola). Since those are so rare, we’ll concentrate on the Three-toed and the Ornate Box Turtles.

We’ll get into the differences in a minute, but their decline in number as alerted Texas Parks and Wildlife. Box turtles used to be so plentiful that a mile of country road would yield one or more of these ponderously moving reptiles. These days a sighting is a special occasion. In fact, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department would like your help tracking box turtles. The following link provides printable forms, on-line forms, contact phone numbers and brief descriptions of what you are looking for. It is urged that you make a report whenever you come across a box turtle.




Box Turtles don’t cleanly fit into any of the three common “classifications” of turtle that were discussed in the Texas Tortoise article. Box turtles spend all of their life-cycle on land, but are not tortoises. The Latin name Terrapene places them in the terrapin group even though they spend no time in the water. Unlike all other turtles, the plastron of the Box Turtle is hinged allowing the turtle draw its head had front legs in behind its protection. When a box turtle brings itself into its shell, only the tips of the front claws, an edge of the back feet and perhaps a peek of tail can be seen.The protection is so good that when one was rescued from his starring role as the puck in a street hockey game, only superficial damage was found. The protection the hinged shell provides will save it from most predators, but not cars. Special attention should be paid the shoulders of the road to prevent collisions. If traffic will permit, help the turtle across the street and ten feet or so past the shoulder on the other side.

Box turtles live relatively solitary lives and research has shown that unless food is no longer available or no suitable mates are nearby, the baby turtles remain within a relatively small territory. Females lay 2 clutches of eggs, one in the spring and one in the fall and like other reptiles, the temperature of the nest greatly affects the percentage of male versus females that hatch. Male turtles are easily distinguished by their bright red eyes. The eyes of the females will be yellow to golden to pale orange. The male’s tail will be longer and thicker at the base and the plastron will be somewhat curved (to complement the female’s rounded shell during mating). The plastron of the female will be flat.

The diet of box turtles reflects their terrestrial nature. They prefer green leafy plants and the fruits and berries from these plants, but augment their diet with worms, larva, insects and unattended ground dwelling bird eggs and hatchlings. They obtain most of their water from the foods they eat, but when thirst brings them a body of water, they are very careful since they cannot swim and will drown.

three toed box turtleThe Eastern Three Toed Box Turtle is named for its unusual number of toes on the back legs. The shell is relatively plain. Each scute, or plate which makes up the shell is ringed much like a tree. The approximate age can be determined by counting the number of rings within each scute. The Eastern Three Toed Box Turtle is easily identified by the fact that it has three toes on its hind feet instead of the more common four.

ornate box turtleThe Ornate Box Turtle almost looks as if a painter decided to dress up as plain turtle. Each scute has a orangey-yellow dot from which a star-burst of yellow rays emerge.

Resist taking an animal home as a “pet”. They often do not flourish in other habitats. We may be unable to see the difference in resources, but the terrapin certainly can.  If the box turtle is kept indoors, it often suffers a slow death through neglect or ignorance. While often promoted as good pets, turtles, like any other animal, require attention and care. While it is legal to keep turtles as pets in Texas, check the regulations to ensure that you remain within the legal framework. They can be found at www.tpwd.state.tx.us/business/permits/land/wildlife/media/nongame_regulations_faqs.doc.  Should you want to keep a legal turtle as a pet, first contact your nearest Herpetological/Turtle/Tortoise/Terrapin rescue organization or Herpetological/Turtle/Tortoise/Terrapin Society to first learn about the animal you are interested in and then to hopefully adopt a rescue animal or at least purchase your turtle from a legal source.

A future article will give guidelines on how to get your yard certified as a National Wildlife Federation wildlife habitat, but why not consider a turtle habitat as a portion of your overall backyard habitat? When you install your pond, consider using mud or sand as a substrate for at least part of the area. Install plants that will be used by the turtle both as shelter and as food resources. Be careful to add a gently sloping entrance/exit from the pond. Sand and soft soil to a depth of several inches should be available near the pond for egg laying. Rocks, logs and other basking surfaces, with easy access to the water, should be available. If the conditions are right, the turtles will find and use the habitat you’ve created. Become a member of a local herpetological society, where you can learn more about turtles and tortoises; often these societies help place unwanted turtles, especially if you have a well thought out habitat already established.

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