How to Care for Your Eastern Box Turtle
Eastern box turtles (Terrapene carolina carolina) are small to medium-sized, terrestrial turtles native to the eastern United States. They generally prefer moist woodlands for habitat, although they may also be found in swamp areas. They like having access to lots of leaf litter and woody debris for cover.
Eastern box turtles are generally 4.5-6” long, although larger individuals have been recorded. These turtles are tortoise-like in appearance, with a highly domed shell, stumpy legs, and a hinged plastron that allows themselves to retract into a “box” when threatened. They usually have a dark brown to black base color, with bright yellow, orange, or even red markings. Each scute on the shell has a pattern of stripes, blotches, spots, or irregular markings. Most males have bright red irises, with the females having yellow-brown irises.
Eastern box turtles are among the most popular pet turtles due to their manageable size and bright coloring. However, they’re a big commitment! With good care, they can live into their 50s, possibly longer.
Note: Box turtles may be very common in the US, but they aren’t easy pets! If you want a pet box turtle, purchase one from a breeder or adopt one from a rescue or your local classifieds. Never take box turtles from the wild! Furthermore, keep in mind that box turtles are illegal to keep in some parts of the US.
How much space do Eastern box turtles need?
A single Eastern box turtle should have no less than 8 square feet of floor space, and preferably more. Like most terrestrial chelonians, they are poor climbers and as such floor space is the most important consideration for an enclosure. Because of their humidity requirements, it is best to house them in a fully-enclosed setup rather than an open tortoise table, unless they are being housed outdoors.
Eastern box turtles are generally considered solitary creatures, and can sometimes get territorial, so it’s best not to house more than one of them per enclosure.
Do Eastern box turtles need UVB?
Yes. Aside from helping provide a day/night cycle and an infinite supply of vitamin D, UVB is also essential to your turtle’s overall health. The best UVB bulbs for Eastern box turtles are:
- Arcadia T5 HO 12%
- Zoo Med T5 HO Reptisun 10.0
The bulb should be half the length of the enclosure and mounted in a high-quality reflective fixture such as Arcadia or Vivarium Electronics. This fixture should be mounted 17-18” above the top of the tortoise’s shell in the basking area, inside the enclosure.
If your box turtle is being housed outside and has access to direct sunlight, artificial UVB lighting is not required.
Since box turtles are diurnal (day-active), it’s a good idea to add a strong 6500K LED or T5 HO fluorescent grow light to further illuminate the enclosure and better simulate daylight.
All lighting should be on for 14.5 hours/day during summer and 9.5 hours/day during winter. This simulates natural seasonal cycles and may stimulate healthier hormonal rhythms.
What basking temperatures do Eastern box turtles need?
Eastern box turtles should have a basking air temperature of 84-88°F, with a cool/shaded area on the other side of the enclosure between 70-75°F. Temperatures should be measured with at least two digital probe thermometers.
Heat your turtle’s enclosure with a 75w halogen heat lamp placed on one side of the enclosure, mounted at roughly the same height as the UVB lamp. If the lamp is too warm, reduce the heat with a plug-in lamp dimmer. If the lamp is too cool, you will need a higher-wattage bulb.
Do not use ceramic heat emitters (CHEs), heat mats, red bulbs, or blue bulbs, as these are not as effective. All heating should be turned off at night.
If you are keeping your Eastern box turtle outdoors, make sure air temperatures never exceed 88°F, as these turtles overheat easily. They can tolerate nighttime temps as low as 50°F.
What humidity levels do Eastern box turtles need?
Eastern box turtles should have an average humidity of 60-80%, absolutely no lower than 51%. As a woodland species, they need consistently high humidity in their environment to stay healthy. Humidity should be measured by a digital probe hygrometer with the probe in the middle of the terrarium.
To help maintain high humidity levels, mist your enclosure 2x/day with a spray bottle and use a thick layer of humidity-retentive substrate. It’s also a good idea to provide a humid hideout lined with moistened substrate or sphagnum moss and placed in the middle to cool end of the enclosure.
As long as you don’t live in a particularly dry climate, humidity shouldn’t be too much of a concern when keeping Eastern box turtles outdoors. Just make sure they have access to a humid hideout, shade, and plenty of lightly moistened leaf litter.
What substrate is good for Eastern box turtles?
Substrate covers the floor of your enclosure and helps make the setup more attractive, but it also helps maintain higher humidity levels and provides something for your turtle to dig into as desired.
It’s ideal to use a substrate that imitates what Eastern box turtles naturally live on in the wild. In other words, you’ll need something that resembles soil. It should have small particles, hold moisture well, and be loose enough to dig in. Access to a generous layer of leaf litter is essential.
We recommend the following substrates for Eastern box turtles:
Untreated grass lawn can also make a good substrate for Eastern box turtles housed outdoors. However, outdoor enclosures should offer areas of various different types of substrates for optimum thermoregulation and hydroregulation.
Substrate should be at least 2” deep and completely replaced every 3-4 months. Remove poop and urates daily, along with contaminated substrate.
What décor can you use in a Eastern box turtle enclosure?
It’s terribly boring for a reptile to be stuck in an enclosure with nothing in it except substrate and food/water bowls. It doesn’t matter how big the enclosure is if you don’t put things in it for your pet to use and interact with.
Here are some décor ideas that are appropriate for Eastern box turtles:
- piles of leaf litter
- additional hiding places/burrows
- large hollow logs
- live, edible plants
- large, flat stones
What do Eastern box turtles eat?
Eastern box turtles are omnivorous, which means that they need both plant and animal matter in their diet. For best health, strive for a balance of roughly 45% plants and 55% low-fat animal protein.
Protein sources for Eastern box turtles: cockroaches, earthworms, mealworms, superworms, snails, millipedes, grasshoppers, crickets, moths, hornworms, silkworms, black soldier fly larvae, darkling beetles, pinky mice, quail chicks, wet cat food
Safe vegetables for Eastern box turtles: cactus pads, kale, collard greens, turnip greens, mustard greens, dandelion greens + flowers, watercress, broccoli, escarole, swiss chard, parsley, spinach, endive, romaine lettuce, hibiscus leaves + flowers, nasturtium, honeysuckle
Safe fruits for Eastern box turtles: grapes, blackberries, cherries, strawberries, plums, apples, persimmons, cantaloupe, mulberries, tomatoes
Young and growing box turtles younger than 5 years old should be fed daily, while box turtles older than 5 years should be fed every other day. For best results, offer food first thing in the morning.
You will also need calcium and vitamin supplements to prevent your turtle from developing a potential deficiency. We recommend Repashy Calcium Plus LoD, lightly dusted on each protein meal. A carotenoid supplement like Repashy SuperPig can be helpful for maintaining your turtle’s vibrant color.
Of course, don’t forget a water bowl for your tortoise to drink from! Box turtles like to soak, so it’s best to offer a shallow “puddle” of water for them to soak in and drink from (cat litter trays work well for this). Change the water daily and scrub the bowl with a reptile-safe disinfectant weekly, or whenever it becomes soiled.
Do Eastern box turtles like to be handled?
Few reptiles actually “like” to be held, but Eastern box turtles generally tolerate human interaction well, especially individuals that were bred in captivity. They don’t like to be held, though. Instead, try hand-feeding and gentle petting to bond with your turtle. Many pet Eastern box turtles learn to recognize their keepers and will come running for food.
If you have to grab your turtle, avoid grabbing it from above, as that will scare it. Instead, approach from the side and scoop from below.
*This care sheet contains only very basic information. Although it’s a good introduction, please do further research with high-quality sources to obtain additional information on caring for this species.