The most charismatic of all our reptiles, box turtles are always a pleasure to encounter when our paths cross in the woods, on a trail, or in a blackberry patch.
Unfortunately box turtles have a hard time living around people. Learn how to do your part to be a good neighbor.
Box turtles have round, highly domed shells. They are brown with yellow or orange markings in each scute (shell section) on the carapace (upper shell). The plastron (bottom shell) is hinged, allowing the turtle to completely seal itself off from predators. The skin of their legs, head, and neck is also marked with brown and orange or yellow. Males have red eyes and notably concave plastrons.
Baby box turtles are flatter and less colorful than adults, with a yellow spot in each carapace scute. Their shells deepen and become more colorful as they grow.
Box turtles are omnivores, eating both plant and animal matter. They are known to eat mushrooms, fruit such as blackberries as well as other vegetation. They also eat smaller creatures they can catch, including some insects, worms, slugs, and snails. Box turtles will also eat carrion (dead animals).
Box turtles live in woods, meadows, and marshy areas.
Box turtles spend the winter in shallow holes, digging deeper into the substrate (leaf litter on a forest floor, for example) as cold weather pushes the frost line down.
They mate in spring, with males and females finding each other visually, no mean feat for a slow-moving, small animal living close to the ground. Mating is a challenge for such round, rigid creatures. The male teeters on top of the female, doing his best to brace himself by hooking his hind feet into the gap between the female’s plastron and carapace.
In May-July females nest, digging holes in which they lay about five eggs. The hatchlings emerge towards the end of the summer.
Box turtles spend most of their time hidden in leaf litter, weeds, or tall grass. A warm summer rain will often bring them out to feast on worms and slugs as well as a soak in a puddle.
Human History with Box Turtles
From their scientific name, the word "Terrapene" is adapted from Algonquin, meaning "turtle,” and carolina comes from the Carolinas, where the species was first described. Lenapehoking, the land on which we reside today, belongs to the Turtle Clan of the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape. Box turtles are featured in lamp posts and statues in Penn Treaty Park representing the Lenni-Lenape. It is also believed that due to their slow, lumbering walk the Lenape would refer to them as “sticky heels.”
TodayBox turtles don’t do well around people. They are slow to cross roads and are frequent victims of motor vehicles. Predators that do well around humans and whose populations are boosted by our trash (raccoons, skunks, crows) dig up their nests. Hatchlings can fall prey to dogs and outdoor cats. And box turtles’ charisma works against them, with many taken home as pets.
The result is that most box turtle populations near humans are in decline.
People often think they’re doing better than they are due to their long individual life spans. Box turtles often live longer than 30 years and can make it to over 100 years. A population that is too sparse for breeding adults to easily encounter each other is doomed to dwindle away, but older individuals can still persist for decades.
Observing Box Turtles
Box turtles are best observed by chance. Walk in good habitat and one might cross your path. Keep an eye on puddles after a warm summer rain.
Living with Box Turtles
Never take a box turtle home as a pet or move it to a location where you think it will do better. A box turtle you find has probably been doing just fine for decades where you find it. If you move it, that is one less turtle to reproduce in that habitat. Relocated turtles also tend to do badly in new locations, where they are unfamiliar with the local food sources, hiding places, and dangers. They often make a beeline back to their original homes, exposing them to road traffic and other dangers along the way.
When you see a turtle crossing the road, always move it in the direction it is heading. If you move it back, it will try again.
Keep dogs and cats on leash outside so that small box turtles don’t die as chew toys.
Report any box turtles you find to the PA Amphibian and Reptile Survey (PARS). You can use the PARS website, the PARS app, or the PARS project in iNaturalist.
Learn more about box turtles at PA Herps.
All About Urban Box Turtles
The Box Turtle is Philadelphia's most charismatic reptiles but also one of its rarest. So let’s talk about Box Turtles and how we can support them wherever we find them, including when they pop up in the city.