Critter Tales

It’s a box turtle! Can I keep it?

It’s a box turtle! Can I keep it?

By Chas Moore

Finding a slow moving turtle is wonderful discovery, and one of the most commonly found turtles in the United States is a box turtle.

Most turtles are aquatic, living in rivers, streams, ponds, swamps and lakes, but like tortoises, box turtles live their entire lives on dry land.

Occasionally, they soak in a mud puddle, but most often they’re seen crossing a road, a yard or woodlot, especially after rain during the summer months.

They’re easy to identify and, if alarmed, will completely enclose its entire body inside its shell. The hinge on the lower plastron (shell) enables a box turtle to do this, and keeps it safe from predators.

Variable colorations of yellow, orange, olive, black, or brown mix together to form a pattern on a box turtle’s upper dome-shaped shell.

Since box turtles are found so frequently and are so easy to catch, they are kept as pets more than any other turtle.

They also are easy to care for. They only need some loose dirt for digging in a yard or box and they readily eat a wide variety of foods, including dog food, fruit, berries and raw hamburger meat. Box turtles usually live 30 or 40 years, with a few reaching 100.

There are many other considerations for caring for a turtle. For more information, check a website like

Many believe the best practice is to enjoy a box turtle in the wild, and appreciate the role they play in the environment.

So what kind of box turtle did you find?

In the United States, box turtles can be either the eastern turtle species (Terrapene carolina) or the western (Terrapene ornate). In Alabama, three different subspecies of box turtles occur, but identification of these can be difficult for a novice.

The northern half of the state is home to the Eastern Box Turtle. The Three-toed Box Turtle is primarily found in the southwestern section of Alabama, while the Gulf Coast subspecies lives in the southeastern part of the state. However, their ranges widely overlap.

It’s interesting to observe that a Three-toed Box Turtle does not always have three toes on its back feet, and others without the three-toed name sometimes only have three toes. It’s the tiny variations in their plastrons and colorations that distinguish different subspecies.

— Contributor: Wildlife Biologist Chas Moore, Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries

— Photo courtesy USFWS

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