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For tortoise, terrapin and turtle care and conservation


One of the species filling the gap of the ban on the Mediterranean importations is the Common Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina), an animal even less suitable to the British climate. They are mainly imported from the United States (hence the name "turtles" where in Britain the animals would be called "tortoises"), where there are several species and although they resemble small tortoises they are in fact terrestrial swamp dwellers. As their habitats overlap it is often difficult to identify them.

THE AMERICAN BOX TURTLE (Terrapene carolina)

HABITAT: Open woodlands, usually in the vicinity of water.

SUBSPECIES: Six subspecies are recognised

1. The Eastern Box Turtle(Terrapene carolina carolina)

The Eastern Box Turtle(Terrapene carolina carolina)

RANGE: Georgia to Illinois, southern Mexico and Massachusetts

2. The Florida Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina bauri)

The Florida Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina bauri)

RANGE: Florida

3. The Gulf Coast Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina major)

The Gulf Coast Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina major)

RANGE: Southern Missisippi, Southern Alabama and Western Florida

4. The Three-toed Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina triunguis)

RANGE: eastern Texas to southeastern Kansas, southern Missouri and south-central Alabama. The fifth and sixth subspecies, the Mexican Box Turtle (T.c. mexicana) from northeastern Mexico and the Yucatan Box Turtle (T.c. yucatana) from the Yucatan peninsula and Mexico are rarely encountered in Britain. The Florida and Gulf Coast subspecies, T.c. bauri,(the smallest), and T.c. major,(the largest) should be kept in a heated greenhouse in Britain and are less frequently imported.


The Box Tortoises can be identified by their hinged plastron (under shell) which allows the shell to close very tightly and makes it possible for the animals to withdraw entirely into the shell. The Eastern Box Turtle or Carolina Box Turtle is dark brown with yellow spots, the size is 6-8 inches, the male has red eyes and the female brown or yellow eyes. The animal has a preference for moist surroundings. The Western Box Turtle or Ornate Box Turtle is reddish brown with spots on both the carapace and legs. There is no eye colouration to provide a clue to the sex, only the tail length is an indicator; the tail of the males is longer. The animal lives in sandy surroundings and needs less water. The Three-toed Box Turtle is the most frequently imported into Britain. The colour is dark brown with yellow spots. There are three toes on each hind foot. The size is 3-5 inches.

The males usually have red eyes and the females brown or yellow eyes.


Box Turtles are omnivorous, e.g. carnivorous, insectivorous and vegetarian. Juveniles are almost exclusively carnivorous, but older specimens eat more vegetable matter. Some of the adults only feed two or three times a week, whereas the young animals and hatchlings seem to want to feed daily. The following foods can be tried:
MEATS AND INSECTS: tinned dog and catfood, meat jelly, raw minced liver, heart and beef, (lean meat, no fat), pieces of cooked rabbit, turkey and chicken. Caterpillars, slugs, snails, earthworms, mealworms, crickets, woodlice. Some will eat pieces of cooked fish. Hatchlings will eat ants' eggs and very small live insects. Small pieces of meat and liver can be pierced on a cocktail stick and waved in front of the hatchlings. They will snap and eat the food. FRUITS : Apples, stewed or fresh, bananas, blackberries, tomatoes, peaches, (tinned as well as fresh), strawberries, melons and watermelons, soaked currants and raisins, grapes, stewed marrow, plums and pears. Most exotic fruits like mango and pineapple.
VEGETABLES: Lettuce, cabbage (cooked or fresh), beansprouts, runner beans (if frozen, defrost first), cooked and grated beetroot and carrot. Yellow vegetables are a good source of beta carotene, which can be metabolisted into vitamin A. Some of the animals will eat clover or brightly coloured flower petals. The diet should include some calcium and a good vitamin and mineral supplement.


The Box Tortoises are reasonably hardy but are very susceptible to respiratory ailments indicated by a runny or bubbly nose and wheezing. This will need antibiotic treatment (Oxytetracycline, either in powdered form or injectable (50mg/kg) for 4/5 days or Gentamycin). The slightest cold can be fatal and for that reason the animal cannot be put out into the garden and left to its own devices. It should have access to a roomy, warm vivarium. As a high humidity is needed a glass bottom is preferable. As a substrate aquarium gravel can be used in half of the vivarium as this retains moisture; the other half can be filled with bark chips. A cave should be placed at one end with damp moss or leaves and some plants in sturdy pots can be added. A heatlamp should be provided on the opposite end of the cave and a shallow dish for drinking and soaking.

Although the Box Turtles are quite buoyant, they are not good swimmers and prefer the water to be shallow. If the water tray is not placed under the lamp a heat pad can be placed under the vivarium or the water can be heated by a thermostat as used in aquaria. The thermostat can be protected by a narrow piece of plastic drain pipe in which holes are drilled. Algae may form in the water; although unsightly, these are not harmful in themselves. A safe product for the elimination of algae can be obtained from an aquarium shop or vessels and tanks can be cleaned regularly with a mixture of hot water to which either lemon juice, salt or vinegar is added. Rinse thoroughly afterwards. The animal should only be allowed outdoors during warm, sunny weather to provide it with the natural sunlight for prevention of eye and shell disorders.

They are great diggers and escapologists so make sure the fencing is adequate. Box Turtles are most active in the early morning and late afternoon. Provide cover and shelter in the outside enclosures.

Mating occurs after hibernation, with the male during intromission, locked on to the hind margin of the female's shell by his hind feet. He leans over backwards with the result that he is frequently dragged along on his back.

Nesting takes place during June and July. Provide mounds for the females to lay their eggs. Clutches of two to seven eggs are laid and must be incubated under high humidity. Female sperm retention for several years after copulation is on record.

HIBERNATION: This is the same as for the Mediterranean Tortoises except that the Box Tortoises should be placed in a wooden or plastic box filled with leaves, peat or moss, which should be slightly moist. Avoid leaves of fruit trees, as these may be sprayed with insecticides. The animals should be checked regularly and the bedding sprayed with a plant sprayer to keep the surroundings moist. Overwintering or non-hibernation should take place in heated quarters.

AILMENTS: Newly imported Box Tortoises may suffer from: BOT FLY INFECTION (visible as a large lump by the side of the head or neck. This must be seen to by a vet. CHEEK, EAR and NECK LUMPS also need veterinary treatment. Generally, the lumps are left to ripen and excised surgically at the appropriate time. The wound is treated with a course of antibiotic ointment.

EYE INFECTIONS (closed or swollen eyes). Obtain a suitable eye ointment from your vet. SHELL INFECTIONS (shell rot) need veterinary treatment. Watch out for bleeding plastrons. Normally a course of aminoglycosides will give a positive response. ANOREXIA. Bathe in luke-warm water and offer live food. If all else fails, try a force-feed of some boiled luke-warm water with added vitamins (A, B6 and B12 specifically). If the anorexia persists, take the animal to a veterinary surgeon for a check-up. As many have a multitude of intestinal parasites (including amebiasis infections with flagellate, protozoans and salmonellosis) try to take a fresh faecal sample to your vet for investigation.