Skip to main content

Weekly “What is it?”: Box Turtle

Box turtles are common in suburban backyards. They can be identified by their high domed carapaces with yellow radiating patterns. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

Box turtles (Terrapene carolina) are often one of the first up-close wildlife interactions that modern kids experience, whether they live in a rural area or the suburbs. Less skittish than a bird or squirrel and slower-moving than a fish, these turtles will sit and allow observers to check them out at close range. During the early days of covid-related shutdowns last spring, I was working from my front patio when I noticed a box turtle booking it down the hill of my front yard. Jumping up to make sure it safely crossed our busy street, I texted my neighbor to alert her of a visitor. With four kids suddenly homeschooling, I figured a live turtle would be the kind of learning opportunity her children would love. Sure enough, they all ran outside and watched the turtle crawl through their yard, kids jumping up and down with excitement.

Box turtles are common throughout the state of Florida, preferring dry habitats like forests, pine flatwoods, fields, and of course backyards. Most Florida turtles spend a good bit of time in the water and box turtles can swim if needed, but they overwhelmingly stick to the land.

The small box turtle prefers dry, wooded habitats and eats a mixture of plants and invertebrates. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

Box turtles have rather ornate shells; they are high domed with radiating yellow stripes. They may also be identified by the two yellow stripes on either side of their face. The underbelly of their shell is hinged, and they have three longer claws on their back feet for digging. Fully grown, they are rarely larger than seven inches long. They are omnivores, eating worms, snails, and plants. There are four subspecies of Eastern box turtles that one might ecounter in our area. These include the Gulf Coast box turtle, Florida box turtle, Three-toed box turtle and the Eastern box turtle. The turtles can be differentiated by variations in shell pattern, head color, and foot color. The species interbreed and overlap in territory, so they can be difficult to tell apart.

Turtles and tortoises are known for their longevity, and box turtles are no exception. In the past, it was common practice to carve one’s initials and a date into the shells of these easily captured reptiles (note—please don’t do this!). Despite the less-than-humane treatment of those turtles, the practice yielded fascinating records of ancient turtles. One turtle found in Rhode Island in 1954 had the initial “G” and the years 1836 and 1890 carved in its shell! Thus, wild box turtles can live to be over 115 years old.