Box Turtles: Ultimate Guide

Box turtles are very interesting because they appear to have much more in common with tortoises than turtles, however, they are more closely related to the pond turtle species, and thus despite their mostly terrestrial life cycle and behavior, they are most definitely a turtle and can make a great option for owners who don’t want to set up a deep and full aquarium as required by most turtle species.

Box turtles are a relatively small species that live in most areas of the US including the central, southern and eastern regions as well as further south in Mexico.

They are very cute with large domed carapace shells and fairly large faces and can make a wonderful long-term pet for those up to the challenge of caring for them.

In this article, we’re going to look at some of the specific characteristics of Box Turtles and what makes them such a unique species, as well as what to look out for if you plan on keeping one as a pet.

We’re going to provide some information about the species itself to give you more of an idea about them and their needs, behavior, and unique traits, as well as information on how to properly care for and prepare for owning one of these wonderful creatures.

Turtles are often much more of a commitment than traditional household pets, so getting access to the right information will make sure you’re able to make the right decision for you and for your potential new pet, which will make things easier for everyone.

To start with we’re going to look at how to identify box turtles so you’re able to confirm you’re able to properly find one and make sure it’s legitimate, before moving on to some more details about what getting a box turtle entails as a pet owner.

Male vs. Female

Being able to properly identify the sex of your box turtle is actually really important, both for picking out a good name and making sure it’s properly looked after. While most people won’t be able to tell apart males or females, or even different species of turtle altogether, there are plenty of telltale signs and giveaways you can use to determine what the sex of your box turtle is.

One of the most obvious of these is that the male box turtles’ carapace (the part of the shell that covers their back) flares outward slightly, while the female’s carapace does not. This alone is reliable enough to be used without looking for other characteristics, however, if you’re not sure or not confident enough on this there are other things to check to confirm the sex of your turtle.

Males have a concave plastron (the area of their shell that covers their underside) with a small dip in it, and this is believed to help the male stay in place during reproduction. This is also a potential reason why females shells aren’t flared, to make it easier for males to… Ahem… get into position.


Box turtles are fairly nondescript compared to some turtle species, and one of their most unique features is that they visually look very similar to a range of tortoises species as opposed to turtles.

They are mostly dark in color, with dark shells of brown, sometimes featuring lighter yellow or light brown markings, as well as flares scutes at the sides of their shells, and four toes on their hind feet.

The head color can vary a little however it is generally darker for younger turtles and a little lighter for older turtles, and there can be some varied marking along the sides of the head and under the chin, however, this is fairly inconsistent.

As a Pet

These are some of the cutest-looking turtles and are very small with large heads and interesting colors on both the shell and their skin.

As pets, these turtles are surprisingly complex to look after, despite the fact they are mostly terrestrial. Like all turtles, they don’t make good pets for those with young families, and their health is quite fragile.

They can be affected dramatically by changes in their environment and there have been documented cases of turtles being so disorientated and upset by changing locations that they walk around trying to find their way home until they perish from exhaustion. This is a tragic and quite upsetting reality of owning these pets.

There are other difficulties too, as, like most turtles, they are inherently shy creatures and dislike being touched and handled, and this can cause fairly traumatic instances of aggression or anxiety in the turtle which may lead to biting, scratching or even panicked urinating.

Their bite can be deceptively powerful and their claws are fairly sharp, meaning younger children aren’t really safe to be left with these animals for any amount of time.

There is also the fact that turtles are known to carry salmonella, which is a harmful bacteria that live on turtles. Proper hand washing after handling turtles is essential to prevent serious illness, and as children can’t be trusted to wash their hands or refrain from eating or putting their hands in their eyes or mouth after handling turtles, this makes them much more vulnerable to this bacteria and far more likely to become ill.

This, of course, means that box turtles aren’t a very good choice for young families, however, they live a very long time and if cared for properly make very loyal and adorable pets who can be lifelong companions to their owners.


Box turtles are very long-lived and have been known to live for up to 50 years in captivity, however, they won’t often live this long in the wild due to predation and health issues associated with their harsher living conditions.


Box turtles are quite unique among turtles as they are one of the least aquatically focused of all turtle species, and are in many ways much more similar to turtles. While they are happy to bathe in very shallow clean water, and they are able to swim, they aren’t very gifted swimmers and lack the webbed feet of their more aquatically adapted cousins.

Breeding Season

Box turtles will tend to mate from the late spring as far into the year as October, however, most nesting occurs in the hottest part of the year around June or July where the eggs can incubate more effectively.


Eggs tend to be laid in one or more clutches and each clutch can contain as many as 4 or 5 eggs each. The incubation period is 70 to 8p days. Some hatchlings will spend all winter in the nest if conditions are poor enough, however, some will leave the nest before this and find other places to hibernate alongside adult box turtles.

Turtles will hibernate in depressions, cavities filled with leaf litter or woody debris.

Growth Rate

Young box turtles tend to grow at a rate of around 1” per year, but this tends to reduce and slow as they age, and after years 7 to 10 they will seldom grow any further.

Life Cycle

Box turtles are very long-lived even among turtles, and it is believed some can live for up to 100 years, making them lifelong or potentially even multi-generational pets, which is a very unique and special characteristic of these pets!


Sadly, box turtles are one of the most threatened of the common US turtles and are listed as vulnerable according to their conservation status, due to the fact they are captured and sold as pets, as well as habitat loss and roadkill.

Exact population numbers are hard to pin down but the list of threats to their survival are considered severe enough to present a threat to their long-term survival.


Box turtles are omnivorous, which means they can eat meat and vegetation. In the wild, they tend to eat insects such as worms, snails, slugs, and grubs, as well as mushrooms, flowers, and fruit as well as other plant life.


As box turtles are able to use their shells to protect themselves and can hide inside very effectively, they aren’t often preyed upon once they mature, however, their eggs and hatchlings are often pursued by raccoons, foxes, snakes, birds of prey, and coyotes.

Roaming Range

They are spread widely across the US, from the northern and eastern US as far south as Mexico. They don’t live in the western US, however.


Turtles tend to be prone to several issues such as vitamin A deficiency, respiratory diseases, abscesses, skin and shell infections, fractures, and even parasites (which can be removed with worming tablets)

Eye Color

Generally, male box turtles have red eyes with black pupils, while females will tend to be brown with dark pupils.


Yes, box turtles will hibernate when they feel the temperature dropping and will do this by burrowing into the mud. They burrow deeper as temperatures drop and will wait out the coldest months this way.

Can they Swim?

Yes, they can swim, but they aren’t gifted swimmers and lack the webbed feet of most aquatic turtles.


Maintaining a clean enclosure is key to promoting good health for box turtles, as well as feeding them a varied and quality diet once every day or two.


Costs can include various things such as their enclosure, as well as temperature and environment management apparatus such as heaters. Of course, there are food costs and care-related costs too should they become unwell.

Fun Facts

Once they are comfortable with you these turtles will be able to recognize you, follow your movements, and are even known to beg for food!