Box Turtles of Louisiana
Beneficial Terrapene carolina major, T. carolina triunguis and T. ornata ornata
The habitat in the riparian area around the Tchefuncte River is perfect for box turtles and other reptiles, but even before we bought our property in St. Tammany Parish, we provided habitat for Eastern box turtles in our yard in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The Eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina) and its subspecies are the most common land turtle in Louisiana. The Ornate Box turtle (Terrapene ornata ornata) also occurs in Louisiana, but in the western part of the state.
Box turtles are very beneficial to the environment and help the organic gardener get rid of snails, slugs and other pests. These turtles are another link in the important life cycle that will help to lead to sustainability in the landscape.
How Our Box Turtle Protection Program Began...
Our protection of box turtles accelerated on our second honeymoon trip to Arkansas. We were traveling back from Lake Ouachita in our Chevy Van, when I noticed a boy run out into the road and back to the ditch. As we got closer we saw a turtle in the road. I slammed on the brakes, backed up and put the turtle in our van. It didn't take me long to figure out that the boy had been placing turtles in the road and hiding in the bushes to watch them get run over by cars.
A quick search of the ditch and lots of yelling at the boy as he high-tailed it off into the brush, revealed a bucket full of turtles that would have been sacrificed for that sadistic little monster's afternoon of fun. I let the turtles go and threw the bucket as far as I could on the other side of the road. We brought the one Eastern box turtle home to our backyard habitat in Baton Rouge.
Rescued Eastern Box Turtle
The Eastern Box Turtle that we rescued from being road kill on a highway in Arkansas stayed within a 300 square foot area which included our yard and he lived in our yard and in the surrounding area for many years.
We discovered that he hibernated in our compost pile when I accidentally hit his shell with the tiller. The wounds were superficial and the LSU Vet school told us to keep them clean and treat them with an antibiotic ointment. He stayed in our green house for a few weeks while the wounds healed, though you could still see the scars.
For years he would periodically come to us to get a juicy treat, then he would go on his way. Then, when we were in the process of moving to our 9 acres, he showed up on our carport one day when I was packing the van to make one of the last loads to the country. It was as if he was trying to communicate that he didn't want to be left behind, so he came along to the new habitat with us. Now he has acres to roam in so that he, too, can enjoy his golden years.
Box Turtle Description
The Box Turtle that we rescued from the road in Arkansas lived many happy years in our habitat.
The Common Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina) has more variation in color, size, shell shape and habitat use, than any other Southeastern turtle. The high domed shell of Terrapene carolina and its subspecies has a hinged plastron which enables the head and limbs to be completely enclosed in the shell. Its toes have no webbing. The upper shell can be brown or black, but is sometimes olive-brown with markings of yellow and orange or red. The plastron (underside) can also vary in color from yellowish to brown or black and sometimes with dark markings, but sometimes without. In some regions, males have red eyes and females have brown eyes. Adult males have a pronounced depression in the center of the plastron.
Two subspecies of the Eastern Box Turtle and one other species of Box Turtle live in Louisiana.
Eastern Box Turtle Subspecies
~ Gulf Coast Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina major)
The Gulf Coast Box Turtle is the largest. There is a distinct flare on the rear of the carapace (upper shell). Males often have large patches of white on the head. Both Eastern and Gulf Coast Box Turtles have four toes on each hind foot.
~ Three-toed Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina triunguis)
As its name states, Three-toed Box turtles usually have three toes on the hind feet. Their shell is drab compared to the other Eastern Box Turtles, being a horn-color, however the head can have bright spots of red, orange, yellow and occasionally even blue. The male three-toed males have heads that are almost completely red.
The subspecies often interbreed when they come in contact with each other along the edges of the zones and the result is a mixture of patterns and colors which makes it difficult to identify subspecies.
Male Eastern Box Turtle on Zazzle
Male Eastern Box Turtle by naturegirl7
Box Turtles in Our Habitat
For several years, we have been photographing, measuring, marking and releasing the box turtles that live in our habitat along the Tchefuncte River. Before Hurricane Katrina, we would usually encounter about 10 a year, but since the massive destruction of the hurricane, numbers have decreased. Now we see only 3-5 each year.
The Common Box Turtle and the two subspecies that inhabit Louisiana exhibit a wide variety of colors and markings. Here are some photos of a few of the beautiful specimens that have inhabited our property.
Carapaces & Plastrons of Box Turtles in Our HabitatClick thumbnail to view full-size
Turtles of the Southeast
One of the best books on turtles. It has great photos and factual information.
Eastern Box Turtle Louisiana on Zazzle
Habits and Habitat
Eastern Box Turtle Louisiana by naturegirl7
The subspecies of the Eastern Box Turtle are found in every southeastern state except for a part of south Louisiana. They occupy diverse habitats and can be found in hardwood forests and fields. In the coastal plains they inhabit sandy areas and palmetto thickets, wet meadows, pitcher plant bogs and the borders of seasonal wetlands.
In Louisiana, Box Turtles are active during all except the extremely cold times of the year. They move around more in the early morning in summer. The turtles will often congregate in shallow pools, in wet areas or under overturned trees where it is moist during drought periods. During droughts and when colder weather approaches, they dig shallow pits under the leaves and ground litter in the forest. They dig a deeper form to get more insulation in freezing weather.
Box turtles are omnivorous. They eat many different types of plants, including mushrooms, roots, flowers, seeds, berries, muscadine grapes and a variety of grasses. Small animals, including earthworms, grubs, beetles, crayfish, frogs and toads, salamanders, snakes and even birds (if they can catch them) are also on the menu.
Herping with Dylan: Box Turtle
Box Turtle at Long Pond
Mating usually occurs in spring, but can also occur during the summer and even into the fall. If a female box turtle chooses not to mate with a male, she will just close up her shell to repel him. However, most males don't give up easily and will go through a sort of mating dance which includes scratching, biting and nudging the female's shell as well as displaying the colorful underside of his throat. These turtles usually mate on land, but the Gulf Coast subspecies (which we have in Louisiana) will sometimes mate in shallow water. Females lay one to two clutches of about 5 eggs each in a nest from May through July. Most hatchlings emerge from the nest in the fall.
One interesting fact is that female box turtles can store sperm from a single mating for up to 4 years and can produce a fertile clutch of eggs in each of those years without mating again.
Box Turtle Pair on Zazzle
Box Turtle Pair by naturegirl7
The hatchlings hide in leaf littler and possibly underground passages so that they are not usually seen until they are 2-3 years old.
One year we found a baby box turtle under the fig tree in our yard in Baton Rouge, which looked small enough to be a hatchling. Because of its fruit, the fig tree was a favorite spot for all sorts of birds and animals.
The picture below shows the hatchling (on the left) with 3 other box turtles, of different sizes, that roamed free in our habitat in Baton Rouge. You can see how the shell (carapace) gets more dome shaped with age. Also note the dark coloration of the younger turtles.
Eastern Box Turtle Laying Eggs - Source: Wikipedia CommonsClick thumbnail to view full-size
There are predators at every stage of a Box Turtle's life. In the nest such animals as raccoons, skunks, foxes, snakes (scarlet snakes and king snakes) and crows destroy nests and eat the eggs. Crows also prey upon juvenile box turtles, as well as black racers and copperheads. Mississippi Kites, egrets and barn owls also prey on the young turtles. Adult Box Turtles a sometimes killed by large dogs and Coyotes. In the southeast, box turtles sometimes do not bury themselves deep enough during winter and fall prey to sudden cold snaps with several days of sub freezing temperatures.
A box turtle's best defense is its ability to withdraw its head and all of its appendages into its shell. The turtle below is peeking out to see if the coast is clear.
Box Turtle Peeking on Zazzle
Eastern Box Turtle Peeking by naturegirl7
Box Turtle Manual Book
This informative book is written by 2 veterinarians and tells how to care for pet box turtles.
Herping with Dylan: Hatchling
North American Box Turtles
The single factor causing the highest mortality among Box Turtles is habitat fragmentation and loss. When a long-lived Box Turtle's home range and favorite feeding patches is criss-crossed with roads, the resulting mortality can cause a population of turtles to disappear.
Humans can use strategies like providing passageways that allow the animals to move under or over roads.
The pet trade and collecting from the wild is another factor that causes a population to be depleted.
Pesticides have also been know to cause severe ear abscesses in individual turtles that have been exposed. Respiratory illnesses like those found in gopher tortoises have also been seen in Box Turtles.
Three-toed Eastern Box Turtle on Zazzle
Three-toed Eastern Box Turtle by naturegirl7
Ornate Box Turtle - Terrapene ornata ornata
Ornate Box Turtle and Desert (License: Wikipedia Commons)
The Ornate Box Turtle has very striking yellow striped markings in a star burst pattern on its domed shell. The underside (plastron) has similar markings, making it easy to distinguish from other box turtles (like the three-toed and the Florida box turtles). As with other box turtles, the plastron is hinged in the front.
The head and legs have yellow spots. The hind feet have four toes on each foot and the males have a toe that curves inward which helps it hold onto the females shell during mating. Adult males have bright red eyes and a slight concave in the plastron. Adult females have yellow to brown to maroon eyes and a flat plastron.
Ornate Habits and Habitat
T. ornata ornata inhabits the western part of Louisiana and prefer western prairies and grasslands, although they may be found in oak savannas, they usually avoid close-canopy hardwood forests. They tolerate dry soils and sandy conditions better than common box turtles.
Ornate Box Turtles are active from March to November, in early morning and late afternoon, and become inactive during the winter months. At night, they bury themselves at the base of plants. During hot spells, they will soak in shallow pools of available water. They migrate great distances to find mates, food and from one hibernation spot to another.
Ornate turtles are omnivorous. Their carnivorous diet includes dead animals, the eggs and young of ground-nesting birds, caterpillars and their favorite, dung beetles. They also eat berries and cactus.
Ornate Box Turtle Poster on Zazzle
Ornate Box Turtle by naturegirl7
Natural History of the Ornate Box Turtle Book
Ornate Reproduction, Predators and Conservation Issues
Ornate Box Turtles mate on land from April through October. Females lay 2-8 (average 5) eggs in nests that they dig in open, sunny areas. Even though they are active during the day, females will often dig their nests at night. They lay 1-2 clutches per year.
Predators include raccoons, coyotes, skunks, crows and ravens. The primary defense to such predators is to withdraw into its shell. Sudden cold snaps will kill Ornate Box Turtles if they have not buried themselves deeply enough.
As with the Common Box Turtle, the Ornate's survival is threatened by habitat loss and destruction. The loss of native prairies to agriculture and the building of roads has eliminated or fragmented much of its original habitat. Ornate Box Turtles need the prairies, but are being forced into unsuitable habitat where many dangers exist. Habitat management of public owned oak-savanna woodlands and prairies that incorporates the needs of the Ornate Box Turtle should be initiated to insure its survival in the wild.
Additionally, because of their beautiful appearance, Ornate Box Turtles have long been collected for the pet trade, resulting in a decline of native populations.
Buhlmann, Tuberville and Gibbons, Turtles of Southeastern Louisiana, U. of GA Press, 2008.
Box Turtle Tie
Box Turtle Designs on Zazzle
Box Turtle Designs by Naturegirl7. Visit Naturally Native Shop on Zazzle.com
Box Turtle at Silver Pond Lake Book
Children will love the Box Turtle at Silver Pond Lake Book from the Smithsonian collection
Box Turtle T-Shirt
Links to More About Turtles
- Turtles, Tortoises and Terrapins of Louisiana
Louisiana is blessed with thirty species of turtles, tortoises and terrapins. The body form of this ancient group of reptiles has changed little in the 200 million years of its existence. Besides various freshwater and land turtles, the waters of...
© 2009 Yvonne L. B.