Illinois Natural History Survey - University of Illinois

Species Spotlight: Box Turtles

Nothing on earth is like a turtle. Other animals have shells--snails and clams, crayfish and lobsters--but they have either fewer or more than four feet. In Illinois, one of the more common turtles is the eastern box turtle, found in the southern half of the state and usually seen crossing the road or rustling through the leaves in the woods. The natural distribution of this turtle corresponds to the last glacier. Eastern box turtles are found south of a line where the Wiscon-sinan glacier stopped.

One of the unique features of turtles is their shell. Both halves are solidly fused, so they cannot leave it behind, (this happens only in cartoons!). The shell is divided into two halves--the carapace, or upper section, and the plastron, or lower section. Plates cover the carapace and plastron and give the turtle its color and design. In box turtles, this is a radiating pattern of light yellow to orange lines or spots on a background of dark brown. Box turtles have a high dome-shaped shell with a movable plastron that has a hinged seam. This allows the turtle not only to retreat inside its shell but also to swing the bottom portion of the plastron tight against the carapace so no soft parts are exposed.

Although eastern box turtles belong to the largest family of turtles in the world, the Emydidae (pond-and marsh-inhabiting, semiaquatic turtles), permanent water does not seem to be a requirement for them. The eastern box turtle commonly resides in open woodlands--areas with large trees, canopy gaps, and a diversified ground cover. Box turtles are active during the daylight hours, basking at openings in the canopy and traveling to find food. When they are not seeking food, they rest in forms, depressions made in the vegetation and top inch of soil. The turtle will remain in the form until the morning sun warms it up. The form insulates the turtle's belly plate (plastron) during hot days and cool nights.

Eastern box turtles, Terrapene carolina carolina.

Eastern box turtles may meander up to 70 yards per day while foraging for food. Since turtles have no teeth, they must use the strong, sharp edges of their jaws, which form a beak, to eat their preferred foods of fungi, fruits, and small invertebrates.

Most box turtles have home ranges, and those that are encountered crossing the road are usually transients. Of these transients, half are youngsters, both male and female, and less than nine years old. The other half is composed of adult males. The transients move only one way through the environment, with no turning back. So remember, the next time you rescue a turtle from the road, note the direction it was going and help it along in the right direction!

The eastern box turtle's annual cycle begins in early April when it emerges from hibernation. Turtles will mate from May through October. Sexual maturity is related to the size of the carapace, not age. Turtles are fully mature when their shell length is eight inches long. After a courtship, which involves circling, biting, and shoving, the pair will mate. The female is able to produce fertilized eggs up to four years after a single mating. When she is ready to lay eggs, she will dig a nest three to four inches deep with her hind feet. Three to eight elliptically shaped eggs are laid in the depression. The female then repacks the nest. The eggs will hatch in two to three months.

When autumn night temperatures drop to the mid-forties, box turtles begin to look for a place to spend the winter. Each day the turtles will dig a short distance into the soil and by the first freeze they are usually deep enough to be protected. They do not hibernate below the frost line, but remain dormant at depths down to five inches below the leaf litter.

Susan Post, Center for Economic Entomology

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Last Modified 11/05/96

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