Featured Creature: Eastern Box Turtle

What reptile loves to sunbathe, has an instinctual ability to always find its way back home, and can close its shell completely for protection?

The Eastern Box Turtle!

“Eastern Box Turtle” from Smithsonian National Zoo (marked with CC0 1.0.)

Let’s Start With The Basics…

Chances are, you’ve probably come across an Eastern Box Turtle before. Box Turtles as a subspecies are one of the most common turtle species in the United States, and the Eastern Box Turtle is widespread along the Eastern Seaboard as well as in states between the Great Lakes region and Texas. In particular, this species loves to reside in grasslands, woodlands, and meadows with a nice pond or small water body nearby. 

Eastern Box Turtles are about the size of a printed photo (4×6 inches). They are sexually dimorphic, which means that males and females have distinct physical traits. Males are bigger in size, except for their tails, which are stubbier than their female counterparts. Females also have longer, thinner claws than males on their hind legs. Both males and females have four toes on their hind legs and five webbed toes on their front legs. They also have a hook on their mouth that lends to a quite noticeable overbite.

A Healthy Appetite

Eastern Box Turtles are omnivores with a nice, big appetite for all things delicious in woodland cuisine. They will munch on plants, fungi, berries, grubs, insects, eggs, roots, flowers, and even fish or small amphibians (frog legs, anyone?). Juvenile Eastern Box Turtles tend to get most of their nutrition from hunting and foraging around small water bodies before relying primarily on terrestrial sources for food during adulthood. 

Perhaps this healthy and varied diet is a contributing factor to their long lifespan. Eastern Box Turtles mate between April and October, and fertilized females lay one clutch of 2-8 eggs per year. After about three months of incubation, these eggs hatch. Eastern Box Turtles reach maturity around 10-20 years old, and live to about 30-40 years on average. Some Eastern Box Turtles have even been known to live as long as 100 years! 

A Shell With Superpowers

Did you think the Eastern Box Turtle has a shell just like any other turtle? Not quite! Eastern Box Turtles have epic abilities because of their shells. There are two main parts to this anatomy: the carapace (a.k.a the dome-shaped top part) and the plastron (a.k.a the underside). When the Eastern Box Turtle is about 4-5 years old, the carapace develops a special hinge and the plastron becomes bi-lobed, which allows the turtle to draw in its limbs and tail and close itself up completely for protection. 

“Eastern Box Turtle” by ShenandoahNPS from Flickr (marked with CC PDM 1.0.)

If you think that’s neat, just wait! It gets even better. The Eastern Box Turtle has been known to regenerate its shell. So, if the shell becomes damaged from, say, a car accident or a dog that mistook a turtle for a tennis ball, the Eastern Box Turtle will heal and regrow the broken parts! 

A Lifestyle Many Aspire To Have

In general, the Eastern Box Turtle lives a pretty chill lifestyle. From about April to October, they mosey about life either foraging for food or sunbathing… and the Eastern Box Turtle LOVES to sunbathe! Warm weather is their jam, so when the weather is a bit chilly, our reptilian pal will find a sunny spot on a log or rock and soak up the nice warm rays. 

This isn’t to say that Eastern Box Turtles are lazy in any way. How could they be? As the official reptile of both North Carolina and Tennessee, they have appearances to keep up. They like to get up and move around in the morning before their afternoon sunbathing session, and also like to take a look around after their habitat has been recently soaked by a good rainstorm. 

Eastern Box Turtles are sociable creatures, and generally tolerate a small group gathering, perhaps for a communal sunbathing event. However, on the rare occasion that moodiness pops up, males will spar, attempting to bite the opponent’s shell when they are agitated with each other. 

When the weather turns cold, Eastern Box Turtles go into hibernation from about October to April. They will even cozy up in the same exact spot for hibernation each year! Not one to change up something that’s already working well, the Eastern Box Turtle also tends to stay in the same general habitat region for most of its adult life. 

While they sometimes wander away from home during the day, the Eastern Box Turtle has a “homing instinct,” which means that they are always able to navigate back to their place of residence, no matter where they go. As the saying goes, home is where the heart is (especially if there are grubs, too)!

For all the homebodies.

By Abby Abrahamson