Photo by NCWRC
Scientific Name: Terrapene carolina carolina
Classification: Nongame species
Abundance: Statewide except for Outer Banks
Species Profile (PDF)
Eastern box turtle (Photo by Jeff Hall)
Eastern box turtle (Photo by Jodie Owen)
Eastern box turtle hatchling (Photo by Jodie Owen)
This small, charismatic terrestrial turtle is seen frequently in fields, forests and neighborhoods throughout North Carolina. The Eastern Box Turtle is one of four subspecies of box turtles found east of the Mississippi and is the most common terrestrial turtle in the eastern United States. The box turtle was named for its ability to completely box up inside its shell when it feels threatened.
Eastern Box Turtles are characterized by their highly domed top shell, called the carapace, which can be brightly colored with a middorsal keel down the center. Carapace color varies greatly between individuals, containing smudges, streaks, blotches, or mottling that can be yellow, reddish, orange, or brown. The single hinge on their plastron, or lower shell, allows complete closure and is located just behind their front legs. Plastrons are usually dark brown with some yellow or orange blotches. Skin color is usually brown or black with yellow, reddish, or orange patterns. They have four toes, without webbing, located on each hind foot. Male and female box turtles are sexually dimorphic as adults. Adult males are most often larger than females and the marginal scutes along the rear of the carapace are usually flared. Males have larger, blockier heads with brighter coloration than females. Usually, but not always, males have orange or red eyes while females have brown eyes. Males have a concave indention in the rear lobe of their plastron that is useful during breeding when mounting females. Females may have a slight indentation, too, but more often have a flat plastron. Females have smaller, less curved rear claws than the males who have distinctively stout, curved rear claws.
For more information read the Eastern Box Turtle species profile.
In North Carolina the eastern box turtle is classified as a nongame species with no open season, meaning that it cannot be hunted or trapped. It is unlawful for any person to take from the wild, have in their possession, purchase or sell 5 or more eastern box turtles (defined as commercial take). However, box turtle populations are declining across the state and even possession of fewer than 5 is not recommended as it removes individual turtles from the breeding pool.
Turtles Protected from Commercial Take in North Carolina (PDF)
Protected Wildlife Species of North Carolina (PDF)
Found an injured turtle?
Eastern box turtles make their homes in neighborhoods and often live near people, which can put them near roads, pets, and other dangers. If you find a turtle that has a cracked shell, is bleeding, or has other injuries, contact a licensed reptile rehabilitator for advice. Turtles have amazing healing abilities and often don’t need assistance to heal from injuries on their own.
Feel a turtle is in danger?
Box turtles spend their entire lives within a small territory (usually under 2 acres) and have very strong homing instincts. Never relocate a box turtle or take it home as a pet. If you feel that you have to move one to safety, transport it the shortest distance possible - ideally less than 50 feet. Always move turtles off of roads by carrying them the rest of the way across in the direction they were already headed. Box turtles are excellent navigators and incredibly determined. Once you are gone they will continue heading to their intended destination even if they’ve been moved, so don’t make them to cross the road a second time!
Found a box turtle nest?
Each spring, female box turtles lay 3-6 eggs in a shallow hole they’ve dug with their back legs. Once the eggs are laid, she will cover them with dirt and leave them to hatch on their own. Right after the eggs are laid, the scent of fresh soil can attract nest predators such as raccoons. No action is required to protect a turtle nest, but if you want to ensure their safety, cover the nest with a piece of chicken wire or hardware cloth and either stake it in place or weigh it down with some stones to keep predators from digging up the fresh soil. Once the ground has settled (about a week or two), remove the wire mesh completely. Never leave a turtle nest covered unless you can check it every day for several months, even if you plan to use a cage-type cover. Box turtle eggs usually take up to 90 days to hatch, but may overwinter and hatch the next spring if they were laid late in the season. Young turtles may starve if a nest cover is left on and forgotten.
N.C. biologists are concerned about declining numbers of box turtles in areas where they once were considered abundant. As a priority species in the N.C. Wildlife Action Plan, populations are closely monitored. In 2008, staff from several N.C. Universities, NCWRC, and State Parks, along with private landowners began a box turtle mark-recapture study to help monitor box turtle populations around the state. We could use your help, too. The Herpmapper website (http://www.herpmapper.org) is an online database available for anyone to log their box turtle sightings into. Photographs, location information, and other details that you include are then available for our biologists view and monitor regularly.
Eastern box turtle species profile (PDF)
Wildlife Diversity Program Quarterly Reports
Protected Wildlife Species of North Carolina Listings (PDF)
The Box Turtle Connection (citizen science project through the University of North Carolina - Greensboro)