©1994 Melissa Kaplan
The American box turtles are widespread throughout the eastern, central and southwestern U.S. and on into the northern parts of Mexico. Box turtles fall somewhere between the aquatic water turtles and tortoises in their need for access to a body of water and to woody grassland areas with dry sandy soil on top, humid earth beneath. Box turtles forage for food, primarily plant matter, on land and spend much of their sleep time dug into burrows or wedged under fallen trees or rocks, safe from predators. They do, however, require plenty of fresh shallow water (one quarter to one third their shell height); while they are not as adept at swimming and diving as the water turtles, they can paddle around. While this water time is generally used for rehydration and voiding body wastes, some are know to do a bit of foraging of aquatic plants and invertebrates at that time. Omnivorous when young, adults eat mostly vegetation.
As with all wild-caught reptiles, the animals found in pet stores have been under stress for some time. As a result, they are most likely suffering from protozoan and bacterial infections, including Salmonella which is easily transmitted to young children. Additionally, they are usually emaciated and dehydrated due to long periods of time without food or water or being held in areas too cold to stimulate the appetite; many of these turtles will not eat when they are stressed or frightened, and cannot eat when they are too cold. As soon as you can after you take your turtle home, scoop up a fresh fecal sample and take it and your turtle to a reptile veterinarian. (If your turtle is not eating, get it to the veterinarian as soon as possible to check for emaciation and dehydration.) While the feces is being tested, the vet will check out your turtle for signs of nutritional deficiencies, topical bacterial or fungal infections, beak overgrowth, respiratory and eye infections - all very common in wild-caught animals (and in captive turtles who have not been provided with the proper environment or diet). Make sure your turtle is given all the medication prescribed by the vet. If you have trouble administering it yourself, take your turtle back to the vet to have it done. If maintained at the proper temperatures, fed a healthy varied diet and kept in a stress-free active environment, your turtle may outlive you: some individuals have lived more than 100 years.
Due to the health problems associated with small children putting small turtles in their mouths, it is illegal for pet stores to sell turtles smaller than 4" (carapace length). While hatchling turtles are about 1 1/4", many are full grown when they reach anywhere from 6" (ornate, three-toed) to 8" (eastern, Gulf Coast, Chinese, Malayan). Males have thicker, and generally longer, tails than the females. Males are larger overall and may be more colorful than females. Male T. Carolina have concave plastrons (bottom shells). Depending upon their environment and diet, box turtles will reach full size within 4-6 years, and sexual maturity at four years for males, 5-7 years for females.
All turtles require a two-three month hibernation period at temperatures around 50-65 F.
SELECTING A HEALTHY
When you pick the turtle up (supporting its body in your hands), it should feel like a weighty, solid turtle - not like a lightweight empty shell. A gentle tug on a back leg should cause the turtle to strongly pull the leg away. There should be no swellings about the face or limbs; eyes should be open, clear, alert. The shell should be firm all over with no slimy or discolored patches. The nose and mouth should be clear - no bubbly secretions, and no clicking sound discernible when the turtle breathes. The beak should be even, free of breaks or overgrowths.
CREATING THE PROPER
Indoor enclosures must be at least 36" x 12", or about the size of a shallow 40 gallon tank. Wood enclosures of the same dimensions and high enough so the turtle can't climb out may be built. The insides of such wooden enclosures must be waterproofed with several coats of epoxy or non-toxic based polyurethane, and left to cure for several weeks.
Create the land area using 2-3 inches of good quality plain sterile potting soil slightly moistened. Do not use backyard dirt or soil from a garden, and there should be no perlite or vermiculite mixed into the soil. Mix the soil with finely shredded orchid bark. You may also use plain fir or orchid bark, or deep drifts of alfalfa. Do not use coarse substrates such as sand, gravel or rock which can scratch the shell, opening the way to bacterial infections. Your turtle requires a shelter or hide box filled with additional substrate material, or drifts of fresh alfalfa hay, in which to burrow. This can be made out of wood, cork bark slabs or even a cardboard box with a doorway cut into it.
A water Area can be provided by placing in the tank a dish or pan large enough for your turtle to lay in and shallow enough for it to easily climb in and out of is required. If a kitty litter pan is used, it must be recessed into the substrate, and the turtle provided with a ramp to get in and out. The water must be changed frequently to keep it scrupulously clean.
You will need two heat sources: a heating pad under the tank and an incandescent or spot light over or to one the side of the tank. If using a wooden tank, the heating pad can be placed inside under the substrate. A large hot rock may be used only if it is set into the soil with a pie plate or other heat diffuser is placed over it, bringing it up to just below the surface of the soil; don't expect the turtle to just climb on top of the bare rock. Note that even with the diffuser, this will not provide enough heat over the broad area that is provided by a heating pad. The turtle may also dislodge the diffuser as it burrows around, requiring you to constantly "replant" it.) The heating pad (or hot rock) must be kept on all the time or as needed to maintain the proper temperatures.
The temperature ranges required by the different species are:
Ornate boxes: between
85-88 F/day, 70-75 F/night;
You need to invest in a submersible water heater if you cannot get or keep the water consistently hot enough with the substrate and overhead heat sources. Buy a couple of aquarium or reptile thermometers; they are much cheaper than paying veterinarian expenses or replacing a dead turtle.
Full-spectrum lighting is required in addition to any light used to provide heat. Full-spectrum light mimics the beneficial effects of sunlight, enabling the reptile to metabolize vitamin D3. There are full-spectrum lights made for reptiles. Some are screw-in types that will fit into properly rated incandescent sockets; others are tubes which slip into fluorescent fixtures. The full-spectrum is an essential part of the calcium metabolization process. With out the specific wavelengths and proper diet, calcium deficiencies will result which may ultimately prove fatal. Use a timer to turn the lights on and off; they need to be on 12-14 hours each day.
Note that the UV waves cannot pass through glass, and 40% of the available waves are lost when the light passes through an aluminum screen; try to have the light shining directly on them.
Special Notes on
Some Special Box Turtles...
Malayan and Chinese Box Turtles
The Chinese box turtles, Cuora flavomarginata, also need a large water area. A large kitty litter pan sunk into the ground is generally an adequate size; be sure the turtle has a way to climb in and out of it. They should be offered the same diet as the American box turtles, but small fish (feeder goldfish) can be offered as well.
While these are hardy turtles which tend to do well in captivity, they cannot withstand cold temperatures; anything below 70 F is dangerous, leading as it can to illness (except during winter cooling, at which time temperatures can drop as low as 65 F) or, in a stressed turtle, death.
The Ornate Box Turtle
Ornates require a hollow log or bark slab under which to hide. The sterile potting soil substrate, into which sand has been added (25% of substrate) should be kept dry and allow for easy digging and drainage.
Ornates help meet their needs for constant temperatures and humidity by hiding under their log much of the day. A light misting on warm days (85-88 F), moderate nighttime temperatures (70-75 F), and a large shallow pan of fresh water should be available at all times.
Unlike the other box turtles, Ornates are primarily insectivorous and they may prefer to feed under water. They are often reluctant to feed in captivity, so monitor them carefully. Live foods should be offered regularly; feed in the early mornings and late afternoons when the turtles are active.
ACCLIMATION AND HANDLING
During this time, put fresh food out every day (on a large jar lid or in a shallow bowl), and make sure the water stays warm and clean. After a while, the healthier turtle will begin to explore its surroundings, and may begin to watch the goings-on around it.
When you pick up the turtle, support its body with both hands. Turtles feel more secure when they can feel something beneath their feet; "swimming" in air - "cute" though it may be - is stressful to them. Let them feel your hands or fingers beneath their feet. A two-handed carry will also help ensure that they will not suffer a potentially crippling--or fatal--fall.
When your children's hands are big and steady enough, teach them the proper way to hold and carry the turtle, and to wash their hands after handling the turtle. If they have been playing with any other animals before they go to handle the turtle, they should wash their hands before handling the turtle, too.
Scientists believe that many cold-blooded animals, especially turtles and tortoises, can live almost forever (well, one hundred years, at least) as they show no signs of aging as they get older. They die from being successfully attacked by one of their few natural predators, from the poisoning or destruction of their natural habitat and improper captive care.
A final thought...
Do your part to help preserve the natural environment and do not buy a box turtle. Instead, contact your local herpetological society, turtle and tortoise group, or reptile rescue group, and see about adopting a turtle that needs a home. Sometimes, turtles are turned into animal shelters and humane societies - be sure to check there, too. Occasionally, captive bred turtles may be available from the breeder - you can find them through the herp society and turtle and tortoise group. Check out my Herp Society page for lists of societies, vets and rescue groups. The Email Discussion List page contains information on subscribing to the Turtle/Tortoise email discussion group, a good source of information from chelonian owners around the world.
Need to update a veterinary or herp society/rescue listing?
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© 1994-2013 Melissa Kaplan or as otherwise noted by other authors of articles on this site