There are six species of box turtle, four native to the United States and two native to Mexico. The Eastern box turtle, T. carolina carolina, inhabits the eastern and central United States from southern Maine to Florida and west into Michigan, Illinois, eastern Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. Box turtles prefer habitat from open fields to wooded or marshy areas, preferably with a lot of leaf cover. People may see box turtles in their backyards. They can also be seen in the Meadow in the Maryland Wilderness at the Maryland Zoo.
Most box turtles spend their entire lives – which can exceed 100 years! – within 250 yards of the nests where they were born. A box turtle makes a mental map of its home territory and knows exactly where to find food throughout the year. If removed from its home territory, it will make every effort to return. It probably will succeed if moved less than a mile or two away, but probably will not if moved further, although it may try for years. Home ranges often overlap and box turtles are not aggressively territorial. They are often found in groups and tolerate others in their territory without displaying aggression.
Box turtles are active during the warmer months. They may stay hidden during the hottest part of the day but are still active during daylight hours. Box turtles hibernate through the winter. They take shelter by burrowing up to two feet deep in dirt, mud, stream bottoms, stump holes, or mammal burrows. A winter hibernation burrow is called a hibernacula. One or more box turtles may share the same hibernacula.
The Eastern box turtle has a brownish-black shell that is spotted or streaked with yellow or orange. Males and females can be told apart by differences in size and some traits. Males are slightly larger than females and have thicker, longer tails. Males have bright red eyes; females have yellowish-brown eyes. Males have short, thick, curved rear claws while females have longer, straighter, and more slender rear claws.
Reproduction does not come readily or easily to Eastern box turtles. It can take a female box turtle at least five years, and possibly a full decade, to reach sexual maturity. When she is ready to breed, she must first encounter a mate, which may or may not happen depending on whether her home territory (which she won’t leave) happens to overlap with a mate’s home territory (which he won’t leave). She may then lay eggs, but they will be few in number and may include some infertile ones. If the eggs make it to hatching, the hatchlings will be extremely vulnerable to predation and few if any will make it to adulthood. Given the odds against reproductive success for box turtles, this is why it is so important to the long-term viability of any local population to leave it intact and not remove any adults.
Box turtle mating season begins in the spring and continues through the summer. A male may mate with the same female several years in a row, or with several females, depending on availability. Interestingly, females can lay fertile eggs up to four years (!!!) after a successful mating.
Females make their nests in the leaf litter and lay 3 to 8 eggs per clutch. Incubation lasts about three months, and temperature determines the sex of the young. If eggs are incubated in a temperature range of 72-81 degrees Fahrenheit, the hatchlings will be male. If the incubation temperature is 82 degrees or above, the hatchlings will be female.
Box turtle eggs and soft-shelled hatchlings are extremely vulnerable to predators of many types. By contrast, adult box turtles sealed inside their shells are safe from almost any predator except Man. This does not mean that life is always safe for box turtles, though. The number one cause of death for this reptile is collision with a car. Development is not a friend to box turtles. When a turtle’s home territory becomes fragmented by roads and other construction, it does not abandon or alter the territory. This means that eventually the turtle will try to cross a road and will get in harm’s way.
Box turtles are not considered threatened or endangered nationally, although some states list them as a species of special concern. Eastern box turtles are scarce in parts of their range because of habitat loss, collisions with cars, and over-collection. In Maryland, it is illegal to take box turtles out of the wild in order to sell them as pets.
Never remove a turtle from the wild.
Never relocate a turtle in the wild, unless you see one trying to cross a road. Help a turtle cross a road only if you can do so safely, and be sure to point it in the same direction that it was headed.
Never return a pet or rescued turtle to the wild without first contacting the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
Educate friends and family about the importance of observing – but not touching, disturbing or collecting – turtles in the wild.
When visiting wetlands, tread lightly and stay on designated paths.
Use pesticides and other hazardous materials sparingly and dispose of them properly to insure that they do not end up in waterways.
Recycle in order to reduce waste and reduce the need for landfills.