Eastern Box Turtle on a white background

Wildlife wonder: Eastern box turtle

Nature’s gentle guardians

Story by Bailey Gilliam

Living on an island brimming with turtle enthusiasts, it’s easy to get caught up in the allure of sea turtles. But amidst the sea turtle frenzy, there exists an equally remarkable turtle species deserving of our attention and protection – the Eastern box turtle. These unassuming creatures, part of the common box turtle family, are a common sight in the Lowcountry and embody a unique charm worth exploring.

Eastern box turtles are easily distinguishable by their high-domed, rounded and hard upper shells, or carapaces. With vivid ridges and furrows that mature with age, coupled with striking orange and yellow markings on their dark brown shells, these turtles blend seamlessly into the forest floor’s fallen leaves and debris. Sporting slightly webbed toes and four toes on their hind legs, these turtles come in various colorations, from brown shells to olive-brown with yellow accents. It’s a testament to nature’s diversity, reminding us that uniqueness is something to celebrate.

But beyond their appealing appearances, Eastern box turtles possess endearing qualities. They are peaceful creatures with a penchant for food, relishing berries, insects, roots and flowers. Younger turtles display a more carnivorous inclination, hunting in ponds and streams, while adults predominantly forage on land. In their social circles these turtles get along famously, often found coexisting without conflict. However, males occasionally engage in sparring matches, nipping at each other’s shells to assert dominance – typical male behavior, indeed.

Though their pace is leisurely, Eastern box turtles are intelligent beings equipped with effective defense mechanisms. When threatened, they retreat all their limbs into their shells, creating a near-impenetrable shield. This defense mechanism renders them daunting adversaries for predators. Humans pose their greatest threat. The Eastern box turtle, classified as vulnerable, faces habitat fragmentation, destruction and illegal collection for the pet trade. Tragically, many fall victim to vehicular accidents and agricultural machinery. Our fellow earthlings need our help, and the simplest gesture is to let them be or assist them in the direction they’re headed – an act of good neighborliness.

Isolated view of the head of an Eastern box turtle peeking out from its moist, compost burrow. The bright summer sun illuminates the turtle's yellow & brown coloring. A single webbed foot claws ahead.

Where to find them

Eastern box turtles prefer terrestrial habitats, including shrubby grasslands, marshy meadows, open woodlands and forest edges. You’ll often find them near streams, ponds or areas that have seen recent heavy rainfall. They thrive in warm weather but seek shelter from excessive heat. In the daytime they may hide under logs, leaves or cool off with a dip in a pond. In milder temperatures they explore for food or bask in the sun. As the colder seasons approach, they migrate deeper into the woods, where they dig underground chambers to hibernate.

Fascinating tidbits

  • After successful mating, a female Eastern box turtle may lay fertile eggs for up to four years.
  • These turtles are the official reptiles of Tennessee and North Carolina and were almost the state reptile of Pennsylvania.
  • Typically measuring around five to six inches in length, males are generally larger with shorter, thicker tails, while females have longer, straighter and thinner hind claws.
  • Mating takes place from April to October, with nesting happening between May and July. A female usually produces one clutch per year, each containing two to eight eggs, which she buries underground.
  • Nest temperature determines hatchlings’ gender, with warmer nests yielding females and cooler ones producing males. Eastern box turtles reach maturity between 10 and 20 years. While their average lifespan is 25-35 years, some Eastern box turtles have defied the odds, living beyond a century.
Turtle eating watermelon

How you can help 

  • If you encounter a box turtle, refrain from relocating it. These creatures have a home range of about 750 feet, where they spend their entire lives. If you must move one, do so gently in the direction it was already heading, avoiding picking it up by the tail, which can harm its vertebrae.
  • If you have a box turtle as a pet, never release it into the wild if you no longer wish to care for it. Instead, seek assistance from a local shelter, veterinarian, wildlife rehabilitator or animal control center for responsible rehoming.
  • If you come across an injured turtle or one you suspect has passed away, take it to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. Err on the side of caution, as even experts can find it challenging to determine if a gravely injured turtle is alive. In the spring and early summer, turtles may carry eggs that can be saved, even if the mother cannot. Injured turtles released into the wild without medical attention face grim odds, including infection, dehydration and predator attacks.

What to do if you find an injured turtle

  • Safeguard the turtle by containing it in a dry box or any enclosed space available. The goal is to prevent further harm or escape. Use gloves or sanitize your hands after handling. If you can, document the injuries with photos before placing the turtle in the box.
  • Note the location or address where you found the turtle.
  • Seek out a licensed rehabilitator locally. If you can’t reach anyone by phone, visit turtlerescueleague.org for assistance.
  • Keep the turtle in a dry, dark and quiet place until it can be relocated to a rehabilitation facility. 

Local rehabilitators

  • Tiffany VanBlaricum: 843-422-2654
  • Erik Billings: 843-871-6606
  • Holly Sellers: 843-858-9334
  • Meg Francoeur: 818-402-6065

For more information on wildlife rehabilitators in South Carolina, visit dnr.sc.gov. Let’s do our part to ensure Eastern box turtles continue to thrive and grace our natural landscapes for generations to come.

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