Site hosted by Build your free website today!


Edward M. Craft


Box turtles are all members of the genus Terrapene. They differ from true turtles in that they have two separate shells that are joined together on the sides. The upper shell is the carapace and the lower is the plastral shell. The box turtle derives its name from its ability to close itself up entirely in its shell. This is made possible by a hinge on the plastral shell. They have been known to close up in their shell when threatened for hours at a time.

This species spends the majority of its life on land and only enters the water from time to time to soak. They will rarely ever enter water to the point where their shell is submerged. They tend to be gentle and easy to handle, but always remember that these are and always will remain wild animals no matter how hard we try to make them into captives. This means that they can bite at any given moment if threatened, however this species if very gentle and would rather close up in the protection of its shell than bite if given the opportunity to do so.

Box turtles tend to live a very long life in the wild, but due to improper captive conditions and poor husbandry they tend to live shorter lives in captivity. The most common examples of this is the box turtle who is "rescued" from crossing the road by a young child who takes it home and places it in a shoe box filled with dirt or a 10 gallon aquarium with about 3-4 inches of water in the bottom. Understanding the needs of this species is very important to its survival in captivity, in fact captivity is one of the largest threats to the overall life span of this species. The major threats to this species in the wild are automobiles, inexperienced collectors, construction, domestic pets and pesticides.

There are two North American species of box turtles the Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina) and the Ornate Box Turtle (Terrapene ornata). There are a total of six sub species with four belonging to Terrapene carolina, the Eastern box turtle (Terrapene c. carolina), the Gulf Coast box turtle (Terrapene c. major), the Florida box turtle (Terrapene c. bauri) and the Three Toed box turtle (Terrapene c. triunguis). The two sub species belonging to Terrapene ornata are the Ornate box turtle (Terrapene o. ornata) and the Desert box turtle (Terrapene o. luteola). Both species live in very distinct environments. Those belonging to Terrapene carolina may be found in woodland areas while those belonging to Terrapene ornata may be found in arid and dry climates.

Another popular species of box turtles are the Asian box turtles, which belong to the genus Cuora and are comprised of two sub species, the Malayan box turtle (Cuora amboinensis) and the Chinese box turtle (Cuora flavomarginata). The care for these species is relatively the same as those of the North American variety with a few small variations, which will be mentioned here. The Chinese box turtle requires a larger water container than the North American species and will readily accept a greater variety of food items. The Malayan box turtle however, is very different from other species of box turtles. It requires a semi-aquatic set up with a 50/50 split between the land and water area of the enclosure. This species will also require a filtration system like those of semi-aquatic species and has a more limited natural diet than other species of box turtles that is comprised of mostly fish.


North American box turtles may be housed with relative ease in a standard 20 long glass aquarium or a very large plastic storage container. A custom made 3'x 4' wood enclosure will provide the best indoor home for your box turtle. The floor of the enclosure should be completely covered with a layer of Styrofoam that may be purchased at any crafts supply store. The Styrofoam should then be covered with smooth vinyl tile, this will provide a surface that will absorb heat, protect the shell from scratching and make for ease of cleaning. After you have added the tile you will need to add a container of water that is large enough for soaking. A small plastic shoebox works very nicely for this purpose. You may cut a hole in both the tile and Styrofoam in the shape of the plastic water container and then place the container of water in this hole. This will provide your box turtle with easy access to a sunken water container and will provide your enclosure with a "pond type" appearance and prevent the turtle from tipping it over within the enclosure.

A hide box may be made of almost any smooth material and placed within the enclosure. The turtle will spend most of its time in the safety and security of its hide box, emerging only to bask, soak or eat. Adding a hide box will eliminate the need for bedding materials within the enclosure that may be accidentally ingested while eating. The easiest and least expensive type of hide box is to cut a large flower pot in half, just be sure that it is tall enough to allow the turtle to enter and turn around without scratching its shell on the edges or sides. Adding a small plastic lid to your turtle's enclosure for feeding will keep the mess to a minimum and make cleaning up much easier.

Many owners prefer to allow their turtles free roam of the backyard, this is NOT recommended. If you would like to house your turtle outdoors a custom area of the yard should be created. This will provide the best enclosure for your turtle, which will enjoy the added roaming space that an enclosure of this nature will provide. Making this type of enclosure begins by selecting an area of the yard with a small amount of shade and sunlight and then digging down under the grass about 1-2 feet deep. The larger the area available the better.

The next step is to place down a layer of wire fencing material over the entire surface area of the pin. After this is completed a box type enclosure may be constructed with the bottom edges of the walls resting on the fencing material and rising at least 3'- 4' above the ground surface of the rest of the yard. This will keep the turtle in the pin and make it difficult for the turtle to climb out, since box turtles are very good climbers. A plastic water container may then be placed in one area of the enclosure on top of the wire fencing material. When all of this is complete the dirt and grass may be added to the enclosure. This will allow the turtle to roam around a larger area and dig into the ground naturally without having to worry about escape. The sunken water container will provide a nice pond area, just be sure that it is shallow enough that it does not completely cover the turtle's shell. Placing a flowerpot that has been cut in half will provide a nice hide box and offer additional shade on hot days while providing a nice hibernation area in winter.


Humidity is not usually a problem for North American box turtles, since they live in such a diverse geographic range. The problem with most North American box turtles is ensuring that members of Ornate box turtle family do not receive too much humidity. A dehumidifier may be used to reduce the humidity for this species.

Using an overhead clamp lamp with a 60-watt bulb may provide both heat and light. This lamp may be placed on a timer and set for the standard 12-14 hour heat/light cycle. Box turtles housed outdoors do not require any supplemental heat or light except when housed north of their normal ranges where the winter temperatures drop below 32 degrees F. When housed outdoors within their normal range this species will enter complete hibernation during winter. This will not occur in those turtles housed indoors. As a result these turtles should not be allowed to cool off during the winter months. In an indoor enclosure the temperature within the house never drops low enough for complete hibernation to occur. Instead, the turtles enter a period of Brumation or artificial hibernation and while their body functions slow they continue to use up fat and energy. Allowing an indoor box turtle to brumate may lead to starvation, since the turtle will refuse to eat, but will continue to use up food and energy. Maintaining constant year round heat is best for indoor turtles, but may shorten there over all life span. For this reason outdoor housing is the preferred method for keeping box turtles. It allows for natural hibernation and exposure to natural sunlight, which is recommended for all species of box turtles.


Box turtles are omnivores and will consume a diet of both animal and plant matter. As juveniles they eat more animal proteins making them more carnivorous, but as they mature they begin to consume more and more plant matter. Both juveniles and adults may be fed the same diet; the only difference is the amount of plant matter that is offered to an adult should be increased compared to a juvenile. Variety is the key to a proper diet and if provided will eliminate the need for additional vitamin and mineral supplementation. Being omnivores gives these turtles the advantage of receiving a larger variety of vitamins and minerals from a number of food sources. Supplementation only becomes necessary when they are fed limited diet of a few food items.

A varied diet for box turtles should include land snails, slugs, beetles, meal worms, crickets, turnip greens, collard greens, dandelion greens, mulberry greens, mushrooms (not wild), wild strawberries and a variety of other fruits and vegetables. Commercial box turtle foods may be fed, but they should be supplemented with a vitamin and mineral supplement. Canned cat food, dog chow, and baby food may also be fed for variety, but should NEVER comprise the basis of the diet.

Favorite fruits include melons, bananas, strawberries, peaches, grapes and apples. These fruits should be offered from time to time as a treat or to encourage a difficult eater to start feeding. Color plays a key role in a box turtle's eating habits and is an important consideration in encouraging good eating behavior.

Return to Main Page

All rights reserved by Edward M. Craft. Printed in the United States of America. Original Edition 1997