Taxonomy is simply the means by which we give names to different animals. Taxonomy also classifies animals into related family groups. Box turtles belong in several families depending on where they originate and various physical characteristics. This book is about the box turtles commonly found in North America, and in pet stores or from mail order breeders. For the sake of completeness all turtles commonly called box turtles are listed but not all are suitable for captivity or as pets. If you find you own one that is rare or hard to keep healthy, then you have a greater responsibility to give that turtle the best care you possibly can. If you cannot do so, please find someone else who can. Box turtles can live a very long time with proper care, and they, as all creatures, deserve to live their lives to the fullest. A very reasonable life expectancy for box turtles is 50 to 60 years, even longer life spans have been documented.

All North American box turtles belong in the Emydidae family of turtles. This is a large family which also includes the sliders, map turtles and pond turtles from North American and Asia. Box turtles are separated from all the other turtles in this family into the genus, Terrapene. It contains 4 species, Terrapene carolina, Terrapene ornata and the rarely seen Terrapene nelsoni and Terrapene coahuila. Terrapene carolina has 6 subspecies. The box turtles most commonly kept as pets are Terrapene carolina carolina (T. c. carolina) or the Common Eastern box turtle, T.c. triunguis or the Three-toed box turtle, and T. c. major or the Gulf Coast box turtle. Three other box turtles in this group are rarely seen as pets because they have small ranges or are difficult to maintain. They are the Florida box turtle or T.c. bauri, T.c. mexicana and T. c. yucatana.

To view pictures of the different box turtles go to my Box Turtle Natural History article.

The subspecies of turtles that belong to Terrapene ornata are T. o. ornata or the Western Ornate and T.o. luteola or the Desert box turtle. The Ornate box turtles are the most recently evolved box turtles and have many features that make them the most terrestrial. They appear to have developed alongside the great herds of grazing animals on the North American prairies. Their powerful front legs and strong claws seem perfectly made for ripping apart manure piles in search of dung beetles and grubs.

Asian box turtles are sometimes available in pet stores and from mail order reptile distributors. They all belong to the genus Cuora in the same Emydidae Family. There are 5 species with Cuora flavomaginata and Cuora amboinensis being the most common. Their common names are the Chinese box turtle or Yellow-margined box turtle and the Amboina or Malayan box turtle.

Other types of turtles sometimes confused with box turtles are the Wood Turtles, the Musk Turtles and the Mud Turtles. These turtles either share similar type habitats or have hinges like box turtles.

The most common box turtles found in the pet trade or along roadsides and fields are the Common Eastern, Three-toed, Gulf Coast, Western Ornate, and Asian box turtles. They each have a distinctive look, but each subspecies seems to have individuals that are hard to identify. The most common features of each are described here, but don’t use just one source to identify your box turtle. The Further Reading section lists other sources of identification information.

Common Eastern: 4-6 inches long with a high domed shell. The shell is usually brown with orange or reddish blotches of various size and shape that form an attractive pattern. The plastron may or may not have dark areas. The skin of the turtle is brown and the males have colorful heads and forelegs. They are found from Maine to Georgia and westward to Michigan, Illinois and Tennessee.

Three-toed: 3 1/2-5 inches long with a high dome shell. The shell is olive brown or yellowish brown and may or may not have markings of yellow. The markings are usually thin lines or spots and dashes. The plastron may or may not have dark areas. The skin is usually brown with yellow spots, and the males have reddish heads with red, black and orange on the beak and forelegs. They usually have three toes on the hind feet but four toes are not uncommon. They can be found in Missouri and southwards to Texas and Alabama.

Gulf Coast: 5-7 inches long with a dome shell. The shell is olive brown or brown and there is very little marking. The back marginal scutes are often flared outward. The plastron is usually unmarked. The skin can be dark brown and the males have colorful heads and forelegs. They usually have four toes on the hind feet, and are found in Gulf Coast areas of Texas, Louisiana, Alabama to western Florida.

Western Ornate: 4-5 inches long with a flatten dome shell. The shell is dark brown or black with bright yellow lines that radiate to form a starburst-type pattern. The plastron is always marked with yellow and brown lines. The skin is gray and white and the head is dark brown with spots of white or yellow. Mature males may have a greenish color on the top of their heads. Found in South Dakota, Illinois and southward to Arizona and Texas.

Asian Box Turtles: 5-8 inches long ; the Malayan box turtles reach the longer lengths. Both Malayan and Chinese box turtles are dark brown with yellow and brown plastrons. The Chinese box turtle have a yellow keel and one yellow strip along each side of the head that extend from the eyes. The Malayan box turtles have several yellow strips on each side of their heads. The Malayan box turtle is semi-aquatic and needs a warm, large swimming area. These turtles and other of the Couras are found in southeast Asian countries. Be sure to investigate the needs of your Asian box turtles as the husbandry requirements of each can vary quite a bit depending on the species.

Go to next chapter, Turtle Anatomy.

Return to Table of Contents.

Disclaimer: Please use all information contained on this web site at your own risk. Last updated on December 30, 2010 .