Common Box Turtle

Jul 19, 2019

Terrapene Carolina is a common turtle of Hudsonville. The species is well known to anyone who spends time outdoors in the woods or in the fields.

Box turtles have a high domed carapace with often the remnant of a keel down the center. The plastron is hinged and can completely enclose head and limbs within the carapace.

It can be variable in color from olive brown to yellowish with dark markings or not. Out of the four sub-species of the South East, two are overlapping in Hudsonville: the Eastern Box turtle and the three toed box turtle. In general males have red eyes (left) and females brown eyes (right).

The Eastern box turtle (T. c. carolina) has a variable shell coloration, usually a mix of yellow, orange, brown and black and the shell pattern can be spots, dashes, with a complex design on each scute.

Three-toed box turtles have a rather drab, horn colored carapace, but the head can have bright spots of red, orange, yellow or even blueish. Three-toed box turtles usually have three toes on the hind feet, but a few individuals have four. Intergradation occurs in Hudsonville, just like along the zones where the two sub-species come in contact, resulting in a mix of colors and patterns that make subspecies identification difficult.

Box turtles mainly mate in Spring on land. They will nest in the evening from May to July, laying one or two clusters of about 5 eggs each. The eggs hatch in early September and most hatchlings will emerge from the nest in the Fall.

Hatchling box turtles are very secretive and are seldom seen before 2 or 3 years of age. They are believed to frequent subterranean passageways and leaf litter where they are protected from most predators. The following pictures have been taken after a cluster of 3 eggs hatched in the incubator early September 2018. These hatchlings still display the ‘tooth’ on the nose that allows to slice the egg shell open.

The young turtles display a noticeable keel or line of raised bumps down the center of the carapace. The shell is not as domed as for adults and the hinge of the plastron is not functional.

Box turtles are active during the day and especially early morning in the warm season of Hudsonville (June to September). During drought or heat waves, they congregate in shallow ponds or in moist areas. Individuals create shallow pits beneath the leaf litter in the woods where they spend the night in the hot season or may be dormant in winter, often returning to the same locations the subsequent years. They can be difficult to spot in the mud, as shown on the picture on the left.

Box turtles eat an array of plant materials, including mushrooms, roots, flowers and seeds, berries, grapes, mayapples, but will not refuse a worm, grub, beetle, frog or toad.

Large dogs and coyotes occasionally kill adults. They leave marks on the carapace that will heal if they survive.

Habitat fragmentation is the reason of most mortality of the box turtles. They are long lived animals established in home ranges and favorite habitats. They may visit the same berry bush or pond every year at the same time. When roads fragment the habitat it can wipe out a whole population. Successful strategies to maintain a population require passage ways that allow the animals to move under or over the roads.