Box Turtle Observation Project

Eastern Box Turtle Care

I have seen several sites on the net (and in books) that give inappropriate instructions for care of eastern box turtles. I am referring specifically to Terrapene carolina carolina, not to the Ornate Box Turtle (Terrapene ornata) or the Florida Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina bauri) or the Three-toed Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina triungulus). I have no familiarity with those populations. Even for the eastern box turtle, the comments I have will serve best for those specimens found in the northern part of their range (or in the mountains).

The biggest problem I see with the care instructions I have seen deal with temperature. My observations indicate that box turtles are creatures of cool forest floors. They avoid heat and full sun, and spend a portion of the morning (and sometimes evening) hours searching for earthworms and insects. They may be particularly active after a rainstorm, when it is cool and when the earthworms are flushed from their burrows. This suggests that their preferred body temperature is much cooler than the 75-80 degree (Fahrenheit) temperatures recommended by some. The best way to keep any reptile is to give it an enclosure that has different temperatures in different areas. The reptile will regulate its temperature by moving between the areas. Box turtles are no exception, except that they must have areas which will hold relatively constant temperatures through the day, since once they are in a resting position for the day, the turtle may not move.

The best bet is to keep the turtles outside as long as the weather is warm enough (I have no experience with hibernating turtles for the winter, and will not go into that here). An outdoor enclosure can be as simple as a row of concrete building blocks. Stacked two high, for a total height of about 40 cm (16 inches), they will keep most turtles in. Despite what you might read, most box turtles are not particularly good climbers or diggers, but watch out for the talented individual. Be sure the enclosure has plenty of shade. There must be an area of vegetation where the turtles can take cover during the day; this vegetation must be in the shade for the hottest part of the day. My turtles do well in a thick bed of ivy, however one reader alerted me to the fact that ivy is poisonous to turtles. You can get more information from the California Turtle and Tortoise Club, but be aware that their information is on toxicity to humans, and may not apply to turtles in all cases. Whatever the vegetation, be prepared for the turtles to trample it down or dig it up to some extent. Many turtles will eat tomatoes; you might want to plant a few for them. Needless to say, no pesticides should be used in the enclosure. The turtles are pretty good pest control agents; they particularly like slugs. If rain is lacking, a quick sprinkle would be appreciated in the mornings. A water pan with about 5 cm (2 inches) of water is necessary. A drainage pan for a large potted plant works well; some rounded stones at one side will help the turtles find purchase and crawl out. Dump the water every few days to remove mosquito larvae. Turtles also tend to relieve themselves in the water, so monitor it and clean it when necessary. The fouled water makes fine fertilizer.

Box turtles are solitary creatures. They do not need companions of any sort. They must also be protected from family pets, and the enclosure must not attract nocturnal visitors such as raccoons or skunks.

If you must keep box turtles inside during the winter, make a large enclosure. Aquariums, even the largest, are not adequate. The turtles need square feet of floor space. Avoid drafts, although that is not as important as is often stated. Room temperature comfortable for humans is good. The flooring should not be carpet which can snag claws. Some types of Astroturf avoid this problem. Heat can be provided three ways:

1. punch a hole in the lid of a plastic bucket. Insert an aquarium heater through the hole. Fill the bucket with water and replace the lid, with the top of the heater sticking through (non-submersible models only). Adjust the heat so that the bucket is warm, but not hot, to the touch.

2. Use silicone sealer to glue a "sizzle stone" to the bottom of a flat rock that the turtles can crawl onto. Be sure the assembly is not placed on a flammable surface. The rock should be warm to the touch.

3. Place a 60 watt incandescent light about 20cm from the floor of the enclosure. My enclosure uses all three of these methods. The turtles have enough room that they can regulate temperature by moving near or away from these heat sources.

The key to keeping box turtles inside over the winter is to reset their internal clocks. In addition to temperature, the turtles use decreasing day length to sense fall and go into hibernation (in fact, light is probably the more important cue). The worst case is this: the turtle is inside, and despite warm temperatures, senses short days and goes into hibernation. It will not eat. Its body, however, is still burning calories at the normal, non-hibernation rate. The turtle dies of starvation. I've had this happen, and it's heartbreaking. The best way to avoid it is not to keep turtles indoors in the winter. Set them free. If you do keep them inside, provide a broad spectrum of light. I used a "shop-light" fluorescent light suspended 60 cm off the enclosure floor. It was on a timer that turned it on in the morning, off at midday, and on in the evening to extend the "day" to 14 hours. Even better would have been a full-spectrum light bulb designed for reptiles.The enclosure was also sited to receive some sunlight each day, which the turtles avoid like the plague.

I have begun hibernating my turtles. In the fall, I remove the pool from their outside enclosure and fill it with a pile of wet leaves. I encourage them to burrow into it. By mid-October, I confine them to this pile, and by early November (before any really hard freezes), I transfer them into their hibernaculum. The hibernaculum is constructed out of a large (3 x 2 x 2 foot) plastic storage container. There are 1/4" holes drilled all around the base about 2" above the bottom, and additional holes at the top. The bottom 2" are filled with potting soil; the remainder is filled with wet leaves. In 1998-1999, the box was placed in a protected area on the roof of our building. It was placed with one side against the wall of the building, and the remaining 3 sides were insulated with plastic trash bags filled with leaves. Similar bags were placed on the top of the hibernaculum. The turtles were checked weekly to be sure the leaves were moist. Once a month, the turtles were removed and weighed. Temperature probes connected to a computer were used to monitor temperature continuously; temperature inside the hibernaculum never went below 5o C even while air temperatures outside the hibernaculum went as low as -10o C. Still, it was a mild winter. I was concerned that because the average temperatures inside the hibernaculum were warm (about 10o C) the turtles might burn off their stored fat early. Therefore, I removed them from hibernation early - about March 17th - and brought them into my office. All of the turtles responded well to this treatment. Those of you in climates colder than that of southern Ohio might want to monitor temperature more carefully.

Other necessities of a turtle enclosure are clean water in a pan that the turtle can crawl into and soak in, and hiding places where the turtle can put its anterior end in and feel comfortable. In the wild, turtles pull up to rest under a log, stump, or stream bank. They excavate a small enclosure into which they extend their head and forelegs (they do not sleep "in" their shells). In a pen, they need an overhang, corner or similar crevice to pull into. It should be snug, so that the turtle feel protected. I solved both problems as follows. I used plastic bus trays (10 cm deep, 30 cm wide, 50 cm long). These are too deep for the turtles to enter and exit directly, so I make ramps out of plastic eggcrate (the plastic grid used in fluorescent light fixtures) covered with Astroturf. The Astroturf is held on with plastic cable ties, and the sections of the ramps are held together by similar ties. About one inch of water is all that is needed. These trays are easy to clean, and the turtles sleep under the ramps.

My enclosure occupied a large corner of my office (about 30 square feet). It extended from the corner and past a conference table. One of the pedestal legs on the table formed one wall of the enclosure; the corner walls formed two additional walls, a file cabinet formed a wall; a counter formed another, and the gaps were covered by a single row of concrete building blocks. The "holes" in the blocks were planters which held vining plants which grew out into the enclosure. The floor was concrete, and one corner was under a window (but with a heat radiator between the window and the turtles).

Perhaps the most critical aspect of turtle care in the winter is to have adequate humidity. Normal - even humidified - air in a house is not humid enough. Without enough humidity, the turtles will be subject to swollen eyes and respiratory infections. My turtles had a cold-mist type humidifier putting 2-4 gallons of water into the air in their corner of the world each day - and that is only for a few weeks in the fall and spring, not in the middle of the winter when inside humidity is very low (they are in hibernation in the winter). Giving your turtles a moist area (peat moss) to dig in will also help. (Note: my adult turtles do not come indoors at all anymore except for very brief stints when they are used in classroom demonstrations).

The turtles do fine on a diet of earthworms, bananas (feed rarely), dog food (chicken) and cockroaches which sneak down from the greenhouse on the roof. Hard boiled eggs (shell and all) are also good. I place the food in front of each turtle individually to avoid fights. They are fed 3 times a week. Despite what you read, a turtle that does not eat for more than one week is in trouble, and you probably should release it if the weather is still warm enough to do so.

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Modified 10/23/96