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What are the Different Types of Box Turtles?

By Rhonda Rivera
Updated May 21, 2024
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There are four species of box turtles, all of which sport the characteristic domed shell. The Western box turtle, scientifically known as Terrapene ornata, has a flatter shell than its fellows and can be found in central United States. Terrapene coahuila is an aquatic species of box turtle found in Mexico. A third type of box turtle is known as Terrapene carolina, and it is adorned with yellow stripes and found in both Mexico and the United States. The fourth and last species of box turtle is called Terrapene nelsoni and it's known for its spots and also originates in Mexico.

Two subspecies of ornata exist: the ornate box turtle and the desert box turtle. Terrapene ornata in general is usually brown to black in color with an assortment of yellow stripes. While its shell is still dome-shaped, it appears flatter than other box turtle shells. Ornate box turtles reportedly live up to 40 years, while desert box turtles live for around 25 years. Both types of turtles eat a varied diet that can include grass, insects, and fruit.

Terrapene coahuila, more commonly known as the aquatic box turtle or coahuilan box turtle, is the only aquatic box turtle that has not gone extinct. Due to habitat loss, aquatic box turtles have become increasingly rare, and some people are concerned about this box turtle's future as a species. Monitoring and tracking efforts show that this box turtle often chooses to stay in one habitat for at least six months, sometimes up to one year. A small percentage of Terrapene coahuila wander away from their homes in search of other wetlands in which to live.

There are six subspecies of Terrapene carolina box turtles. The majority of these subspecies are often adopted as pets, but their legality varies depending on the jurisdiction. In general, these box turtles require a large space and regular food and water. They cannot be kept in a glass container because they do not understand the concept of glass and can injure themselves or become stressed. Like other box turtles, Terrapene carolina turtles keep a wide diet not limited to cockroaches and raw vegetables.

Also known as the spotted box turtle, Terrapene nelsoni is known to live a little less than 25 years in captivity. They are considered a subtropical or tropical species of turtle. Much information is still unknown about the spotted box turtle, especially regarding its mating habits.

Frequently Asked Questions

How many types of box turtles are there?

There are four main species of box turtles, each with several subspecies. These include the Common Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina), with six subspecies, the Western Box Turtle (Terrapene ornata), with two subspecies, the Spotted Box Turtle (Terrapene nelsoni), and the Coahuilan Box Turtle (Terrapene coahuila). Each species has unique characteristics and habitats.

What distinguishes the Common Box Turtle from other types?

The Common Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina) is notable for its high-domed shell and variable coloration, which can range from brown to yellow patterns. It's also the most widespread species, found in various habitats across the eastern United States. This adaptability has made it a familiar sight in many regions.

Are box turtles endangered?

Some box turtle species are indeed facing conservation challenges. For instance, the Coahuilan Box Turtle (Terrapene coahuila) is listed as endangered due to its limited range and declining population, primarily caused by habitat destruction and pollution. Conservation efforts are crucial to protect these vulnerable species and their ecosystems.

Can box turtles be kept as pets?

While box turtles can be kept as pets, it's essential to understand their specific needs, such as diet, temperature, and habitat. They require a significant commitment, often living for over 50 years in captivity. Additionally, it's important to source them responsibly to avoid contributing to the decline of wild populations.

What do box turtles typically eat?

Box turtles are omnivores with a diet that includes a wide variety of foods. They eat insects, worms, fungi, berries, and leafy greens. The exact diet can vary based on the turtle's species and the food available in its natural habitat. A balanced diet is crucial for their health, especially in captivity.

How do box turtles protect themselves from predators?

Box turtles have a unique defense mechanism: their hinged plastron (the bottom part of their shell) allows them to completely close their shell, protecting their head, limbs, and tail from predators. This 'box' ability is where they get their name and is an effective strategy against many natural threats.

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