Animal Information

A GUIDE to Northern Box Turtles. IDENTIFICATION, Conservation Status, and History

We have a new page that helps us all properly identify North American box turtles. Did you know there is a species that is aquatic more than terrestrial? We all know they love water... but this one stays in it all the time except for breeding! We share some pretty interesting stuff, not just regulation info! Click to read more!

Box turtles comprise a genus of turtle native to the United States and Mexico. Also known as, box tortoises, there are currently four recognized species of box turtles. Common box turtle, Coahuila box turtle, Spotted box turtle, and Ornate box turtle.

Terrapene carolina was first described by Linnaeus in 1758.

It is the type species for the genus Terrapene and also has more subspecies than the other three species within that genus.

The eastern box turtle subspecies was the one recognized by Linnaeus. The other five subspecies were first classified during the 19th century.

The common box turtle is the most prominent and well-known type of box turtle, of which most of the North American subspecies hail.

Three U.S. states name subspecies of the common box turtle as their official reptile.

Box turtle numbers are declining because of habitat loss, roadkill, and capture for the pet trade.

Wild populations are at risk due to predation of eggs and juveniles (raccoons, possums, foxes, birds), habitat loss and modification, car strikes, pesticides, pollution, and collection for the pet trade and turtle racing.

Common Box Turtle Subspecies:

Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina) is a subspecies that gets its common name due to being located in the eastern United States.

It is one of the more well-known subspecies and its official status is listed on the IUCN red list as vulnerable.

Florida Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina bauri) is a subspecies that gets its name due to being found almost exclusively in the state of Florida, although it occasionally can be found in southern Georgia.

The subspecific name, bauri, is in honor of herpetologist Georg Baur. Like other subspecies of T. carolina, the Florida box turtles are listed on the IUCN red list as a vulnerable species.

Gulf Coast Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina major) is a subspecies that can be found along the Gulf of Mexico, ranging between the American states of Louisiana and Florida.

Analysis of nine nuclear DNA microsatellites revealed no population structure in box turtles currently assigned to T. c. major from the Florida Panhandle.

Thus, suggesting a complete admixture of lineages in this region.

The results of the present study indicate that box turtles traditionally assigned to T. c. major based on phenotype are the result of introgression between eastern extant (predominantly T. c. carolina) and an extinct subspecies, T. c. putnami.

Three-Toed Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina triunguis) gets its common name from its iconic three toes on its hind legs.

They are more enduring of new surroundings than most box turtles and is thus to be regarded as one of the better subspecies to keep as pets.

This subspecies is native to the south-central part of the United States and is the official reptile of the state of Missouri.

Mexican Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina mexicana) is a subspecies endemic to Mexico. There are export laws against in place to protect them, and they are rarely seen in the pet trade.

Yucatan Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina yucatana) was first described by Boulenger in 1895, the Yucatan Box Turtle is an endemic species, meaning that the entire known species is isolated to a single area.

The only known location of the Yucatan Box Turtle is the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico, for which the turtle is named after.

It is the southernmost subspecies of a box turtle and is heavily isolated from the other subspecies; more so than any other type of box turtle.

When first discovered, it was even believed not to be a subspecies but an independent species of its own.

Coahuilan Aquatic Box Turtle (Terrapene coahuila), known for its common name, this is the only known aquatic box turtle in North America.

They are endemic to Coahuila, Mexico. Their official status is endangered. It is a close relative to the common box turtle T. carolina.

Researchers have therefore suggested that it developed from a nonaquatic species to survive in the desert springs of Cuatro Ciénegas.

Spotted Box Turtle (Terrapene Nelsoni) was first described by Stejneger in 1925, this species has not been studied very thoroughly.

It has two known subspecies, the Northern and Southern spotted box turtle, on which very little information is available.

The species gets its name for the tiny spots all over its shell. It has no official status in terms of endangerment, due to lack of study.

Ornate Box Turtle (Terrapene ornata ornate) was first described by Agassiz in1857.

The ornate box turtle is one of only two terrestrial species of turtles native to the Great Plains of the United States.

It is one of the two different subspecies of Terrapene ornata. It is the state reptile of Kansas. A subspecies of the Western box turtle. Its official status is near threatened.

Desert Box Turtle (Terrapene ornata luteola) was first described by Smith & Ramsey in 1952, this turtle gets its common name from being found in several of the dryer states, such as Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.


Eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina) has a black/brown carapace with irregularly shaped blotches of yellow/orange.

Eastern box turtles have a high, dome-like carapace and a hinged plastron that allows total shell closure.

The carapace is elongated, high-domed (helmetlike), and not serrated along posterior margin.

Two hinges are present on the plastron, forming moveable anterior and posterior lobes

The skin coloration, like that of the shell, is variable but is usually brown or black with some yellow, orange, red, or white spots or streaks.

This coloration closely mimics that of the winter leaf of the tulip poplar.

In some isolated populations, males may have blue patches on their cheeks, throat, and front legs.

Eastern box turtles feature a sharp, horned beak, stout limbs, and their feet are webbed only at the base. Eastern box turtles have 5 toes on each front leg, and normally 4 toes on each hind leg.

Although some individuals may possess 3 toes on each hind leg. This may or may not be due to interbreeding of subspecies.

Florida box turtle (Terrapene carolina bauritypically have a dark carapace with radiating yellow lines. Its head often has yellow lines as well.

Like the other common box turtles, they have a dorsal keel or ridge running along the carapace above the spine, and the plastron tends to be relatively plain and is a cream color with fine lines of brown.

The Florida box turtle is similar in color to the Western Ornate turtle but has thinner and more numerous yellow markings.

The background of the shell is black. It has thick yellow stripes on each side of its head. The back of its shell flares out slightly. They normally have three toes on their back feet.

Gulf Coast box turtle (Terrapene carolina major) is the largest of the extant box turtles and is semiaquatic.

It is head color ranges from dark to white in older males. This turtle has a rounded carapace with a raised central keel.

The carapace often widens at the back, with well pronounced rear scutes flaring outward.

The color ranges from dark olive to brown or black. It may or may not have splotches of yellow or orange color but is rather drab.

The back legs have three or four toes but mostly four. Males are very aggressive towards each other and should be kept apart to avoid the risk of a fatality.

Sexing them can be difficult. Both sexes have relatively short tails and flat plastrons. If a pair is available, the male can be seen to have a larger tail with the vent opening located past the edge of the carapace.

Males often have bright red eyes shown by many male box turtles. They also commonly have areas of solid red or white color on their heads and forelimbs. 

Three-toed box turtle (Terrapene carolina triunguis) defining characteristic is its toes. It has three toes on its back feet, thus why it is known as the Three-Toed Box Turtle. Hybrid Three-Toed Box Turtles who have interbred with Common Box Turtles sometimes have four toes instead of three.

As a subspecies of box turtle, it has a hinged shell that enables it to conceal its limbs and head within its body entirely.

They have a domed shell and can grow to about five inches in length.

The Three-Toed Box Turtle does not typically have colored markings that are as bright as other sub-species. Often their shells and limbs have basic colors like olive and light brown. The beaks are also colorful. Some brighter markings appear occasionally, such as yellow, red, or orange spots on the neck and head of males.

Ornate box turtles (Terrapene ornata ornata) are small and distinctive turtles with yellow striations on the brownish carapace and plastron.

Ornate box turtles differ from the common box turtle group by having a strong pattern of radiating lines on each scute on the plastron, which is generally plain in T. carolina bauri. The ridge along the carapace above the spine found in the common box turtle is replaced by a yellow line on the carapace.

Mature male ornate box turtles have solid green heads and purple tongues and may have red or yellow markings on the front legs.

The luteola form has thinner but more numerous striations on the carapacial scutes

Box Turtle Eyes

You can tell alot when you look into the eyes. Mostly, sex. Sometimes!

The easiest way to tell the sex of any subspecies of a box turtle is if you are lucky enough to see male genitalia or see female laying eggs. Instead, a combination of features should be used to confidently assign a sex to a turtle.

According to Ashley LaVere and Ann Somers from the Box Turtle Connection, suggest using a 3 out of 7 determination rule should be used when determinating sex in turtles means that a turtle should have at least 3 of the following 7 key characteristics before any sex determination is made. coloring on the face and forelegs

  • eye color, hind claws
  • the general shape of the carapace
  • depression or lack thereof on the plastron
  • tail length and placement of the anus
  • the extent of flaring of marginal scutes.
Bessie located on the right is a female with reddish eyes. This is also true with the three-tied box turtle females.

Males of Eastern box turtles usually have more colorful heads and legs. The hind claws located on the back feet of the turtle are thicker and more curved than those on females. The males have more red or orange and white and black on their face and neck. The eyes of mature males are usually red or reddish, whereas the female’s eyes are usually deep brown but can be redish.

This is a protected species! In the state of Florida, you are allowed to own two box turtles, regardless of subspecies, per adult in your home.

The term carapace refers to the upper, or top, of a turtle’s shell. Males usually have a flatter carapace, giving them an overall thinner appearance (dorsal-ventrally). The carapace on females is more highly domed than males.

Males have an indention on the posterior end of their plastron (below the hinge).

This depression allows the male to gain stability when mounted on a female during copulation.

Marginal scutes are the scutes located on the outer perimeter of the carapace. In males, these scutes flare out more than those on females.

The tail length and placement of the vent with respect to the posterior edge of the carapace can provide clues as to whether you are looking at a male or female.

In males, the tails are usually longer and the vent is located below the edge of the carapace.

In contrast, female box turtles commonly have shorter tails with their vent residing above the edge of the carapace.

Box turtles brumate in much of the native range.

Like what you read? Appreciate the information? We are a non-profit 501c3! Thank us with a contribution by clicking DONATE!

Let us know your ideas and comments below!

%d bloggers like this: