Eastern box turtle © Joe Crowley
The eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina) has a high domed carapace (upper shell) that is brown to black with yellow to orange blotches and is less than 20 centimetres long. The plastron (bottom shell) is tan to black with radiating markings. The plastron is hinged, allowing the turtle to lift it – like a drawbridge – to close with the carapace. The head is brightly patterned with yellow to red markings. Males usually have red eyes, and females usually have brown eyes.
Blanding’s turtles, which also have a high domed carapace and a hinged plastron, have a bright yellow throat. Wood turtles are terrestrial and have brightly coloured faces, but their carapace is sculpted and flatter than the domed carapace of the eastern box turtle.
Eastern box turtles are found in a variety of habitats, particularly moist deciduous forests with plenty of undergrowth, as well as swamps, fields and the edges of ponds and streams. Although they are mostly terrestrial, box turtles require shallow water nearby to stay hydrated. During the winter, this species buries into leaf litter and soil to avoid freezing.
Eastern box turtles are a long-lived species that reach maturity between seven and 10 years of age. Females lay three to six eggs during the spring in a shallow nest. Emerging hatchlings are two to four centimetres long. Once mature, this turtle has very few natural predators. Several long-term studies have shown that individuals of this species can live in the wild for over 30 years.
Eastern box turtles eat a variety of food, including worms, insects, berries, mushrooms and plants. When disturbed, these turtles pull in the lobes of their hinged plastron to completely close the shell.
Threats and Trends
This species no longer occurs in Canada. Archeological evidence suggests that it persisted in southern Ontario until the 1500s, but observations in the 20th century are probably those of released pets. Vehicles on roads are a serious threat to this turtle, particularly to adult females searching for or returning from nesting sites. The loss of suitable forest and wetland habitat poses another major threat to this species, as does its collection for the pet trade in parts of its range.
Current Status and Protection
The eastern box turtle is considered Extirpated by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada and is not protected by the federal Species at Risk Act or Ontario’s Endangered Species Act, 2007. It is not listed as a Specially Protected Reptile under the Ontario Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act. These acts do not protect individuals of this species or their habitat. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the status of the eastern box turtle as Vulnerable. The species’ status was last confirmed in October 2012. Additional detail about legal protection for species at risk in Ontario is available on our Legal Protection page.
Learn more about reptile and amphibian conservation and what you can do to help these species on our Reptile and Amphibian Stewardship page.