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The range of the Eastern Box Turtle covers much of the eastern and central United States, extending from Kansas to Texas eastward to the Atlantic coast, with a northern extension into Michigan. Box turtles may be found throughout Indiana, but tend to be more common in the southern half of the state. Eastern Box Turtle populations are declining throughout much of their range. Habitat loss, road mortality, and collection by humans are likely some of the leading factors in box turtle declines. Box turtles are protected in Indiana and may not be collected from the wild.
The Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina) is a small to medium sized turtle with a domed, and often-colorful shell. The top of the turtle’s shell (carapace) is variable in color and pattern but is typically marked with yellow to orange streaks and blotches that often form a “palmate” pattern on a dark background. The bottom of the turtle’s shell (plastron) can be yellow, brown or black, or a combination thereof. The rest of the turtle’s body may also have colorful markings. The plastron has a distinct hinge that allows the turtle to “box” itself in for protection against predators.
Forest stands are the preferred habitat of the Eastern Box Turtle, although they may occasionally be found wandering about in grasslands and wet situations.
The diet of Eastern Box Turtles is variable and may include fruits, berries, worms, slugs, insects, mushrooms and carrion.
In Indiana, mating has been observed in late April and May, but may take place throughout the summer and into the fall. Female turtles normally deposit 1-7 eggs in an excavated nest before covering them with dirt. The eggs hatch 3-4 months later. Hatchling turtles usually measure about one inch in shell length.
Eastern Box Turtles are long-lived creatures and have been documented to exceed sixty years of age. Very old specimens may reach ages of over one hundred.
The Eastern Box Turtle is almost entirely terrestrial, spending the majority of its life on land. Box turtles tend to be most active during morning hours before the heat of the day sets in, and again in the evening when the weather cools down. However, this behavior can be affected by weather as they may also be observed during the cooler temperatures following a summer rain. During hot and dry weather, these turtles will occasionally seek out the shallows of pools, streams or lakes. When threatened or startled, box turtles may quickly withdraw their head, limbs and tail into their shell and “box up”, pulling the bottom of their shell up against the top. The onset of colder temperatures in October and November cause box turtles to seek shelter in shallow burrows where they will spend the majority of the coming months in winter dormancy. Spring emergence typically occurs during March and April.
Predators of this turtle include: raccoons, skunks, coyotes, dogs, ants, crows, snakes and hogs. Eggs are especially vulnerable to predation, along with young turtles whose unhardened shells afford little protection.
One of the greatest factors affecting the decline in Eastern Box Turtles is human related changes in the landscape. The conversion of forest to agricultural land along with the expansion of housing developments into areas where suitable habitat once existed has no doubt affected many turtle populations. Additional factors that are potentially damaging to box turtle populations include road mortality and collection by humans.
Recent initiatives have led to the protection of the Eastern Box Turtle in Indiana. Beginning Oct. 23, 2004, the collection of Eastern Box Turtles from the wild is prohibited. A special permit is now required to care for captive specimens in the state. Conservation initiatives in addition to habitat preservation will help protect this unique turtle from further declines.