Saving Native Texans Part 1 – Native Texas Box Turtles

Hind foot of a Three-toed Box Turtle. Photo courtesy of The Waterman and Hill-Traveller's Companion, a Natural Events Almanac.
Hind foot of a Three-toed Box Turtle. Photo courtesy of The Waterman and Hill-Traveller’s Companion, a Natural Events Almanac.

There are two native box species in Texas – the Three-toed Box Turtle (also called the Eastern Box Turtle) and the Ornate Box Turtle.  Three-toed Box Turtles are so named because the subspecies that occurs in Texas almost always has three toes on each hind foot (1). Their shells are typically fairly plain and lack ornamentation; both sexes can have orange or red spots on their necks and heads; males can have entirely red heads and orange or reddish-orange irises. The historic range of this species in Texas included nearly every county within the eastern third of the state as far west as Bexar County, although they have been reported as far west as Kerr County since the 1998 update of the Herps of Texas. A woodland/forest species, Eastern Box Turtles are omnivores and will readily consume plant matter as well as arthropods and earthworms (2). Box turtles are generally long-lived, and the one that is currently under CTTR care has been in captivity for more than 30 years.

Plastron (bottom shell) of Eastern (left) and Ornate (right) box turtles. Photo courtesy of Herps of Texas Online.
Plastron (bottom shell) of Eastern (left) and Ornate (right) box turtles. Photo courtesy of Herps of Texas Online.
Ornate Box Turtle. Photo courtesy of HerpNet.
Ornate Box Turtle. Photo courtesy of HerpNet.

Both the carapace (top of the shell) and plastron (bottom of the shell) of the Ornate Box Turtle is decorated with thick orange lines in a pattern resembling fireworks. Their shells are flat on top and not as domed as the Eastern Box Turtle. Ornate Box Turtles are often found in grasslands or prairies, and can tolerate more arid conditions than Eastern Box Turtles (3). Ornate Box Turtles are mostly carnivores, and will prey on arthropods, small vertebrates and bird eggs (4). This species can be found all throughout Texas, though individuals found in the far western counties likely belong to the subspecies commonly referred to as the Desert Box Turtle (3, 4).

Box-turtle declines in the wild are attributable to many factors, including the pet trade, habitat fragmentation, and climate change (5). You can help save native box turtles by supporting research and conservation initiatives, and by not purchasing a wild-caught box turtle as a pet. If you are considering the purchase of a box-turtle, find a breeder or get in touch with a rescue organization that rescues and adopts out turtles that have been found or donated (CTTR does not currently have any box turtles up for adoption).

Why did the turtle cross the road, and how can I help?

Turtles are single-minded when it comes to getting to where they want to be. If you see a turtle crossing the road, you can help it if you can do so without putting yourself in danger. First, try not to hit the turtle with your car. You can help the turtle across the road in the direction it was heading, but do not attempt to find it a “better spot” unless the location where the turtle was heading is extremely dangerous like a neighborhood or shopping mall. Please do not collect the turtle for your own purposes.

This is all great information, but I’m really here because I have a box turtle that I can’t keep anymore. Can I just let it go?

Please do not release your captive turtle into the wild. Captive turtles released into the wild have a much lower chance of survival than if they remain in captivity, and they may damage local populations by introducing disease. If your pet isn’t native to the area, it probably wont survive, and if it is native it may still introduce undesired consequences. Please contact CTTR or your local rescue organization if you need to re-home your turtle.

Ethical behavior is doing the right thing when no one else is watching – even when the wrong thing is legal. –Aldo Leopold

What if I see a box turtle in the wild?

Although box turtles in Texas can be legally collected with a hunting license, we respectfully encourage you to enjoy them in their wild habitats when you see them there. You can assist with the Texas Box Turtle Survey Project by entering your observation on iNaturalist.

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