Choosing a Box Turtle

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If you’re thinking about getting a box turtle, here’s what you need to know:

Why They Are Called Box Turtles

The name box turtle was given to these turtles because of their unique ability to withdraw their entire bodies within their shells or “box” themselves in. They range across eastern, central, southwestern United States and northern Mexico. In North America there are primarily four species of box turtles:

  • Eastern box turtle – Terrapene carolina carolina
  • Three-toed box turtle – Terrapene carolina truinguis
  • Gulf Coast box turtle – Terrapene carolina major
  • Ornate box turtle – Terrapene ornate
  • Where to Get a Box Turtle

    Box turtles are listed as a vulnerable species and are not often available for pets. If you are interested in having a box turtle as a pet, try obtaining one from a breeder, local herpetological society, turtle and tortoise group or from a reptile rescue group.

    In the past, many of the turtles sold in pet stores were caught in the wild. Because of that, they are becoming endangered. Within the United States, many states have strict regulations regarding the collection and possession of these reptiles.

    It is also important to know that it is illegal for pet stores to sell turtles less than four inches long. That requirement is not so much to protect turtles as it is to prevent them from being swallowed by small children. Yes, it has happened.

    Box Turtle Facts

  • Female turtles are generally smaller than male turtles.
  • Box turtles will typically live between 30 to 40 years but some may live a lot longer.
  • Box turtles can grow to have a shell size between 4.5 and 8 inches depending on species and gender.
  • Box turtles are partially aquatic (water-lovers).
  • Box Turtle Lingo

  • Carapace – the upper portion of the bony shell
  • Plastron – the lower portion of the bony shell
  • Scutes – Horny plates that make up the surface of the turtle’s shell
  • The Equipment You Need

    Box turtles should be kept in an enclosure that measures at least 36 inches by 12 inches by 15 inches. Thirty-gallon aquarium tanks or larger are adequate. An alternative is a concrete mixing container made out of plastic and sold in hardware stores.

    Within the shelter it is essential that there be a substrate for the turtle to dig and burrow, like potting soil (but without vermiculite or perlite), peat moss, orchid or fir bark or alfalfa hay/pellets or a combination of these. These substrates should be changed weekly to avoid bacterial contamination and buildup.

    The shelter floor may also be covered by newspaper, brown paper or artifical turf, but turtles still need an area to burrow. And the flooring materials should be changed and washed daily. If you use artificial turf, you’ll need to rotate several pieces because each one takes 48 hours to dry completely after it is washed.

    Avoid kitty litter, sand, ground corncobs, walnut shell, wood chips (especially cedar, since it may be toxic), aquarium gravel or pea gravel.

    Although turtles carry their homes on their backs, they still need a hideaway. It can be as simple as a cardboard box with a doorway cut into it or pieces of hollowed wood, or as fancy as rounded cork bark.

    The Right Temperature

    A hot turtle is a happy turtle. In general, the daytime temperature should range between 85 to 88 degrees Fahrenheit while nighttime temperatures can range between 70 to 75 F. Invest in some good thermometers to ensure that your turtle is toasty.

    A variety of heating options are available including heat strips and pads, subtank heating units and overhead incandescent lights. Also, pick up a spotlight so turtles can bask in 90-degree-plus heat.

    Water Is Crucial

    Every turtle needs a swimming hole to call its own. As a general rule of thumb, the water depth should be no more than one-quarter to one-third of their shell height or approximately five centimeters. A large pie plate will do the trick. The water should be thermostatically controlled with a water heater to keep it warm. Lastly, a filtration system is ideal since turtles often use the pools as a toilet. The water needs to be changed regularly. Also disinfect the pan with a solution of diluted bleach.

    The Right Light

    Natural is best. But if that’s not possible, set your lights up so they mimic the natural cycle. In the summer the light should be on for 14 hours with 10 hours of darkness. In the winter, the light should be on for about 10 hours and it should be dark for 14 hours. A timer will help to maintain the proper cycles.

    Ultraviolet light is essential for healthy turtles, providing them with vitamin D-3, which is needed for the absorption of calcium from the gastrointestinal tract.

    Some commercially available fluorescent bulbs, which provide the UV-B spectrum, are Dura-Test’s Vita-Lite, Vita-Lite Plus, ZooMed’s Iguana light and Active UVHeat. These bulbs should be within 12 inches of the turtle and no glass or Plexiglas should separate them. It is also important to replace the bulbs every six to 12 months even though the bulbs are still producing light.


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