The box turtle is found throughout the woodlands of Alabama, and is one of the most commonly seen turtles because it is a land turtle.
Most turtles are aquatic, meaning they live in rivers, streams, ponds, swamps or lakes. However, like tortoises, box turtles live their entire lives on dry land. They only occasionally soak in mud puddles.
Box turtles are usually seen crossing a road, in yards or in woodlots, especially after periods of rain in the summer. In dry periods of the summer, they will excavate under rotting logs or leaf litter only to come out when it rains.
Box turtles are easy to identify, as they are the only turtles native to Alabama that completely enclose their entire bodies inside their shell when alarmed. They have a hinge on their lower plastron (shell) that enables them to do this. This helps keep them safe from predators.
The upper shell is shaped like a dome with highly variable colorations of yellow, orange, olive, black, or brown mixed together to form a pattern.
Three different subspecies of box turtles can be found in Alabama, but identification of these can be difficult for the novice. The northern half of the state is home to the Eastern box turtle. The three-toed box turtle is primarily found in the southwestern section of Alabama, while the Gulf Coast subspecies lives in the southeastern part of the state. However, their ranges overlap widely.
The three-toed box turtle does not always have three toes on the back feet as the name suggests and other races sometimes only have three toes as well. Only minute variations in the plastron and colorations distinguish the different subspecies. Intergrading among the races often occurs, making identification even more difficult where their ranges overlap. For this reason, we can just refer to them all as “box turtles.”
Since box turtles are found so frequently and are so easy to catch, they are kept as pets more than any other turtle. They also are very easy to care for. They only need some loose dirt for digging in a yard or box and they readily eat a wide variety of foods, including dog food, fruit, berries and raw hamburger meat. Box turtles usually live 30 or 40 years, with a few reaching 100.
In Alabama, you may keep only one as a pet. It is illegal to buy, sell, or trade a box turtle or its parts for anything of value. The best practice is to enjoy them in the wild and appreciate their role in the environment.
The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources promotes wise stewardship, management and enjoyment of Alabama’s natural resources through five divisions: Marine Police, Marine Resources, State Lands, State Parks, and Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries. To learn more about ADCNR visit www.outdooralabama.com.
— Chas Moore is a wildlife biologist with the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries.