Box Turtle Frequently Asked Questions

  1. I  just found a turtle on the road (in my yard, under my deck, in my shoes...) ?
  2. A turtle just laid eggs on my property - what should I do?
  3. Why doesn't my turtle eat ?
  4. How should I care for my turtle?
  5. What about hibernation ?
  6. What should I do with an injured turtle ?
  7. I  just saw a turtle in a pet store...
  8. My turtle just laid eggs in its aquarium...

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I just found a turtle on the road.... ?

It is very common to find turtles on the road, or in your yard.  Turtles are particularly active at dawn on a rainy day, and late May through June is a particularly active time of year.  Why do you find the turtles?  Well, many of them simply live in the area and you just happened to come across them.  Moving or relocating such turtles will only result in tragedy.  First, they will likely try to return home, and thus wander out into a road somewhere else.  More importantly, they could carry a disease to a population which was unprepared for it, and thus kill hundreds of other turtles (remember what happened to the Native Americans when exposed to European diseases?).  Box turtles do not require much in the way of habitat; I have correspondence from people who know of turtles living for decades in enclosed lots in New York City.  Adult turtles at least can adapt well to urban and suburban life; relocating them to "natural" habitats is usually a mistake.

One of the biggest tragedies occurs when someone picks up a turtle on the road.  They then take it home and put it in an aquarium with water.  The aquarium is too small, and you know box turtles are terrestrial...  Well, of course the next thing that happens is the turtle lays an egg.  Many of the turtles out in the spring ae females moving to their nesting grounds.  By picking up these turtles, not only are you removing the adult from the population, but her babies as well.

What should you do if you see a turtle on the road?  If it is possible, safely go to the turtle and move it to the far side of the road in the direction it was traveling in.  Safely means parking your own car off the road and not exposing yourself to getting hit.  As much as I love turtles, I will not risk my life - or the lives of others on the road - to save one.  

If you must relocate a turtle, do it as quickly as possible, and move the turtle the shortest possible distance.  This means that if land is being cleared for development, move the turtle to the nearest possible woodlot or pasture, preferably one that will not require the turtle to cross a busy road to return to where it came from.  Yes, this isn't a very satisfying solution.  Best bet is to work to reduce urban sprawl.

You should be aware that in some states it is illegal to relocate turtles or to return them to the wild.  This is to protect native populations from disease.  If you take a turtle in, it may be for life.  Since the turtle could well outlive you, contact your lawyer about setting up a trust for the turtle.

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A turtle just lay eggs on my property - what should I do?

Sometime in June (in Ohio at least) you may well see a female box turtle laying eggs on your property.  They prefer disturbed areas in sunny locations, so your garden or your driveway is a safe bet.   The best thing to do is to protect the eggs in place from predators.

 In general, box turtle nests have a high mortality rate due to predators such as skunks and raccoons. You probably want to protect the eggs in some way. Ideally, leave them in place. If you must move them (from your driveway, for instance), be careful to keep them right-side up - do not rotate them. Transfer them to a similar outside situation some distance away. 

To protect a nest built outside, build a cage a few feet square around it. The cage can be made simply by driving 4 stakes into the ground, and stapling chicken wire, rabbit cage wire, or screening over it - don't forget the top. Be sure to bury the edges of the screen to discourage digging under it. If the cage is a few feet square it will help keep the smell of the buried eggs from the noses of any predators, and they will not be likely to dig. Some animal repellent, or flowers such as marigolds, will also discourage predation. If the screen mesh is small enough that the quarter-size babied will not be able to crawl out, be sure there are some leaves to hide under in one corner and check for hatching periodically. If you do have young to release, do so on a rainy night to give them the best chance to reach a place of safety by morning. If the mesh is large enough, the young will just crawl out on their own.  A very simple cage can be made out of 2 strips of gutter screening (see picture above). These are about 3 feet long. Simply curve one into a circle and tie it there using nylon cable ties. Place the other one over the resulting circle, attach it to the circle with more cable ties, and cut it to fit the circle (it will cover about 1/2). Use the remaining gutter screen to cover the other side, and close up any gaps with the cable ties. The screen can be anchored to the ground with stakes (more cable ties) or weighted down with rocks. Be sure the edges are buried in the soil a few inches. The mesh of this cage is too small for the babies to get out, so check daily.

How long does it take? At least the summer. Probably about 3 months or so. Sometimes, however, the young will overwinter in the egg, so don't lose hope. Normally, 4-6 eggs are laid.

If you must bring the eggs inside, you can build a simple incubator.  Get a 10-gallon aquarium and fill it 1/2 full of water.  Purchase 2 submersible aquarium heaters of 50 watts each (the submersible types with thermostats that can be set to a specific temperature are the most convenient).  Submerge both thermostats at the bottom of the tank. Set one thermostat at about 70 degrees F, and the other one at 85- 90 degrees F.  Plug this second thermostat into a timer that is set to come on about noon and stay on for 5 hours or so.  Place the eggs in a plastic shoebox filled with potting soil.  Be careful not to rotate the eggs at any time.  The eggs should be almost completely buried.  Keep the potting soil moist but not wet.  You will probably need to place something in the water to hold the shoebox up off the bottom of the aquarium.  Adjust the water volume so that the water level in the aquarium is about 3/4 full and the water outside the shoebox comes about 1/2 the way up the side of the shoebox.  Cover the aquarium loosely to prevent excessive evaporation, but still allow for some air flow.  Keep the incubator out of direct sunlight.  This setup should maintain the eggs at normal soil temperatures and even simulate the normal warming and cooling of the soil during the day and night.  Be sure the soil stays moist but not wet, and remove any eggs that develop excessive fungus (a small amount of algae or mold on the outside of the egg is OK).  Do not handle the eggs.  It is much better to leave the eggs outside if at all possible.

More on eggs.....

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Why doesn't my turtle eat ?

Box turtles seem to start out as carnivores and end up being omnivorous.  Most people who write me about this are trying to feed a box turtle typical tortoise fare - vegetable and fruits.  Box turtles are related to aquatic turtles more closely than they are to tortoises, and thus share the aquatic turtle's affinity for meat.  Box turtles love to feed on rainy mornings when their chief prey - slugs and earthworms - are likely to be found.  In addition, box turtles are keen to the seasons, and refuse to eat during the fall and winter, or even on hot summer days.  In nature, they just wouldn't find food on such days, so they don't even bother to look. 

To get a turtle to eat, you need to be sure that it is being exposed to at least 13 hours of light each day.  In the winter, that means supplementing daylight with other lights tied into a timer to come on before dawn and turn off after dusk.  Broad spectrum light is best, so don't rely on just incandescent or florescent lights, but use a combination of both.

You must feed at the appropriate time of day.  Morning is best.  Many turtles will refuse food at other times of the day.  The closer you are to dawn, the more readily the turtle will eat.  Box turtles make even worse pets for late risers.

Box turtles can sense low pressure systems, even inside.  The worse the weather is outside, the more likely they are to eat.  Don't be surprised if they refuse to eat on clear days.

You must offer the right foods. Meat is a necessity.  Earthworms are an ideal food; see your bait store (many convenience stores also carry worms and it is often interesting to see what refrigerator they come out of).  You might also dig them up in your compost pile or lawn - but avoid worms from lawns that are treated with ANY chemicals.  Slugs, crickets, minnows, caterpillars, sow bugs, crayfish and other small organisms will also be taken with relish.  If you can't get live food, meat-based dog foods are a good staple in the diet.  My turtles like the canned chicken slices after I rinse off the gravy. Some plant food is also good from time to time.  Most turtles come to love bananas (but don't feed them too many - use as a rare treat), and many will also eat strawberries and tomatoes.  Box turtles are the only known vertebrates that eat the fruit of the mayapple and spread its seeds, so if you have these plants nearby they might be an attractive food source for the few weeks they have fruits.

Some turtles will refuse to eat for  weeks at a time.  This is not good, and you should take this situation seriously.  On the other hand, it is normal for a turtle to go several days without eating, particularly in clear weather.

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How should I care for my turtle?

I don't recommend keeping box turtles as pets.  If circumstances force you to keep one, however, see the care and instructions page.

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What about Hibernation ?

Box turtles normally hibernate and many experts agree that the best way to keep a turtle healthy is to allow it to hibernate during the winter months.  After resisting the idea for I while, I have become a convert and hibernate my turtles every year using a simple system.  First, I obtain a large plastic storage container (30 gallons or bigger).  I drill 1/4 inch holes around the sides about 2" up from the bottom and 2-3 inches apart.  I drill 1/2 inch holes around the sides about 2" from the top, and put an additional series of holes in the lid itself.  I fill the bottom of the container (up to the holes) with a loose mixture of dirt and leaves, then fill the remainder of the interior to the top row of holes with leaves.  I then add water until it runs out the holes at the bottom, making sure that all the leaves are moist.  I then toss the turtles in.  Depending on the type of plastic box, it may be necessary to drill some holes and use plastic ties or other fasteners to secure the lid.

Ideally, this box can be kept in an unheated garage where it is safe from predators.  I simply check weekly to ensure that it is moist inside - the dirt on the bottom should be saturated with water, and don't be surprised to find the turtles buried in it, apparently underwater themselves.  If the box must be placed outside, I surround it with plastic bags filled with leaves, including a bag or two on top.  This provides insulation from really cold temperatures.

The turtles should go into hibernation about the time that the leaves fall, and come out when the leaves are starting to reappear on the trees.  If they are kept outside during the summer, you will want to watch the carefully in the fall and be sure that each night when you anticipate a frost that they are under good cover.  Don't feed them for a week or so before you put them into hibernation, and give them a warm bath before hibernation.  This helps clear the gut of any undigested food that may rot in their gut over the winter.

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What should I do with an injured turtle ?

Unfortunately, it is not uncommon to find a turtle which has been hit by a car or otherwise injured.  It is amazing what these turtles can endure; I have found turtles (such as Gauchere) living happily in the wild with 3 legs, for instance.  Some turtles will need only minimal first aid before being released; others will need more extensive care.

The best bet with a severely injured turtle is to get it to a wildlife rehabilitation center (see the phone book or search on the web).  Call before you go.  Cruel as it sounds, not every center has either the ability or the time to care for injured turtles.  In some cases, zoos or educational institutions - such as schools with veterinary or veterinary assistant programs - may be able to help. Nature centers and parks may have some ideas for you. And, of course, your local state wildlife office can be an excellent source of information. Don't be upset with your vet if she or he does not have the expertise to deal with the problem, or needs to charge you for the service; vets have to make a living too and most vets simply don't make a lot of money from their practices.

Although I have had some luck myself with shell repairs, it is not an easy thing to do.  Rather than post instructions here, I would recommend that you search the web for up-to-date information.  Try using these terms (cut and paste) in your search engine:

+carapace +repair turtle tortoise 

As you will see, these procedures are not for the faint-hearted or unskilled.  

Less-serious injuries can be cared for quite easily.  In general, wash the wound out well with antibacterial soap.  Be sure to remove any maggots which may have infested the wound.  Wounds to the shell can be softly scrubbed with a soft toothbrush and antibacterial soap.  Minor shell cracks can be splinted by wooden popsicle sticks held in place with silicone aquarium sealant.  Be sure not to cover over any areas where infection may occur as you will need to keep scrubbing those areas.

Once the initial cleanup is done, either release the turtle as close to where you found it as possible (you've already done much to increase its chances) or prepare to keep it for a while and work with it further.  Note that in some states this will require you to have a wildlife rehabilitation permit.

If you keep the turtle for any length of time, keep it in an aquarium or a plastic container of some sort.  Keep the inside bare, as any type of bedding will only breed bacteria.  Scrub the inside of the cage daily with a disinfectant and rinse it well (eliminate all odor of the disinfectant).  Keep the cage in a warm place (80 degrees F) with one part of the cage under an incandescent lamp (for heat) and another part dark (preferably with a "hiding place" that the turtle can crawl into in the "cool zone").  Be sure the cage gets at least 13 hours of light a day, but avoid direct sunlight.

The daily care is simple.  In the morning (when the turtle is likely to eat) it is removed from the cage and placed in a large plastic bucket with food such as earthworms.  After the turtle eats, the bucket is rinsed (it helps to have two buckets per turtle) and 1" or so of lukewarm (90 degrees F) water is placed in it along with the turtle.  The turtle will probably drink for a minute, then defecate.  At this point, the turtle itself is rinsed under running water, the bucket is cleaned with disinfectant, and the turtle is placed in a clean bucket with warm water and a teaspoon of Binox antibacterial powder (see your pet store).  The turtle is allowed to soak for 1/2 hour, wash the cage during this time.  Then, the turtle is scrubbed gently with a soft toothbrush over its entire body with water and antibacterial soap, and rinsed under running water.  Finally, betadiene (drugstore) is applied to any wounds and the turtle is now placed in its clean cage. No food or water in the cage!  Needless to say, without water in the cage it is crucial to perform the initial soaking step each day.  If you have more than one turtle, keep them in separate cages and use separate buckets for their treatments.  Write the name of the turtle on the bucket and always use the same bucket(s) for the same turtle(s).

As the turtle gets better, it may be possible to omit the longer soak in Binox every other day or so. You can usually detect the presence of infection by the smell of the infected wound. It can take weeks to completely clear a nagging infection.

If the infection does not respond to this treatment, or if it seems to spread, you will need to see a vet for antibiotic treatment. Also, if your turtle has a respiratory infection (wheezing, bubbling or discharge from the nose, lack of interest in food, swollen eyes) you need to get it to a vet.  These infections can be easily cured with injectable antibiotics (oral antibiotics are very hard to dose for turtles).  Although it is possible to purchase appropriate antibiotics at farm supply stores, accurately dosing these drugs requires access to specialized laboratory equipment, hypodermic syringes, etc.  I was able to do this for several of my turtles, but then I work in a biology department and this equipment is readily available.  I would not have been able to do this treatment at home.  See a vet!

 

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I just saw a turtle in a pet store ... ?

I can't give you any real advice here.  Like you, I have agonized over seeing turtles in pet stores.  Should I buy it? Give it a better home, a fair chance?  It's a tough call.  By purchasing the turtle, you in effect legitimize its capture, at least in monetary terms.  The store owner will sell out his or her stock, and may buy more.  Eventually, this leads to the supplier going out and taking another turtle from the wild.  I usually try to reason with the store owner and convince them not to sell box turtles.  Failing this, it might be profitable to research local ordinances regarding the sale of turtles, and if circumstances warrant, turn the matter over to the legal authorities, the humane society, etc.  But as to "saving" that one turtle in the window, well, that's your call.  Just remember that you can never, never, never release such a turtle back to the wild. Releasing a turtle anyplace other than where it was caught, or after it has been in contact with turtles (or containers used to transport turtles) can introduce new diseases into a population and can eventually kill hundreds of native turtles.

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My turtle just laid eggs in its aquarium...

OK.  First, your heart was in the right place in trying to keep the turtle safe.  The turtle you picked up was crossing the road to lay its eggs.  When you moved it to the aquarium, it couldn't find the deep soil it needs to lay eggs in, so it held onto them waiting for you to release it.  Finally, it gave up and had to get the eggs out of its system.  So it laid them - in the water, in its bowl, on the ground.  It may have even eaten the eggs.

Eggs laid in such situations (often it is one large egg) are rarely fertile, but you never know.  Ideally, you should incubate the eggs in an incubator as follows:   Get a 10-gallon aquarium and fill it 1/2 full of water.  Purchase 2 submersible aquarium heaters of 50 watts each (the submersible types with thermostats that can be set to a specific temperature are the most convenient).  Submerge both thermostats at the bottom of the tank. Set one thermostat at about 70 degrees F, and the other one at 85- 90 degrees F.  Plug this second thermostat into a timer that is set to come on about noon and stay on for 5 hours or so.  Place the eggs in a plastic shoebox filled with potting soil.  Be careful not to rotate the eggs at any time.  The eggs should be almost completely buried.  Keep the potting soil moist but not wet.  You will probably need to place something in the water to hold the shoebox up off the bottom of the aquarium.  Adjust the water volume so that the water level in the aquarium is about 3/4 full and the water outside the shoebox comes about 1/2 the way up the side of the shoebox.  Cover the aquarium loosely to prevent excessive evaporation, but still allow for some air flow.  Keep the incubator out of direct sunlight.  This setup should maintain the eggs at normal soil temperatures and even simulate the normal warming and cooling of the soil during the day and night.  Be sure the soil stays moist but not wet, and remove any eggs that develop excessive fungus (a small amount of algae or mold on the outside of the egg is OK).  Do not handle the eggs.  It is much better to leave the eggs outside if at all possible.

Now for the turtle.  If it is healthy and has not been housed with other reptiles, or in an aquarium in which there have been other reptiles, turn it loose immediately, right where you found it.  If it is sick or you don't know where it came from, at least give it proper care by following these instructions.

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Dave McShaffrey
Copyright 2000. All rights reserved.
Revised: October 29, 2003 .