The Eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina) is a 4-7” long species of terrestrial turtle native to the eastern United States. They can most often be found in moist woodlands with plenty of leaf litter and woody debris.
Eastern box turtles generally have a dark brown to black base color with bright yellow, orange, and/or red markings on their skin and shell. Males typically have red eyes, while females have yellow-brown eyes. Although they are technically turtles, Eastern box turtles have highly domed shells with a hinged plastron that “seals” them inside when they feel threatened.
Eastern box turtles are popular pets due to their manageable size and bright coloring. However, they’re not a beginner-level turtle. With good care, they may have a lifespan of 50+ years!
Minimum enclosure size for Eastern box turtles
The minimum acceptable enclosure size for an Eastern box turtle is 8 sq feet of floor space. Since turtles are poor climbers, floor space is the most important dimension to pay attention to. However, because they need high levels of humidity, it’s best to avoid using an open enclosure like a tortoise table if housing them indoors. However, outdoor pens can work very well if probably secured against potential escape.
Cohabitation (housing multiple box turtles in one enclosure) is not recommended.
Do Eastern box turtles need UVB?
Yes, Eastern box turtles require regular exposure to UVB light to maintain good health. The best UVB bulbs for Eastern box turtles are:
- Arcadia T5 HO 12%
- Zoo Med T5 HO Reptisun 10.0
However, if your box turtle is being housed outside and has access to direct sunlight, artificial UVB lighting is not required.
Your UVB bulb should be half the length of the enclosure, mounted in a reflective Arcadia or Vivarium Electronics fixture, and placed 17-18” above the top of the turtle’s shell in the basking area. The fixture should be inside of the enclosure, not outside.
Since Eastern box turtles are a diurnal species, it’s helpful to also install a 6500K LED or T5 HO fluorescent grow light in the enclosure for additional illumination. It will also make your turtle’s colors look more vibrant!
Lamps should be on for 14.5 hours/day during summer and 9.5 hours/day during winter. This is likely to boost your turtle’s long-term health by encouraging natural hormonal rhythms.
Best temperature for Eastern box turtles
Like other reptiles, Eastern box turtles are cold-blooded, which means that they rely on external temperatures to manage their own body temperature and metabolism. A reptile’s enclosure should offer a range of temperatures to allow them to thermoregulate effectively.
Specifically speaking, Eastern box turtles should have a basking temperature between 84-88°F. On the other side of the enclosure, the temperature should be between 70-75°F. These temperatures should be measured with at least two digital probe thermometers. Heating should be turned off at night.
Provide heat for your box turtle with a halogen flood heat bulb mounted in a ceramic fixture. Do not use ceramic heat emitters (CHEs), red bulbs, or blue bulbs, as these are not as effective.
If you are housing your box turtle outdoors, make sure air temperatures never exceed 88°F, as these turtles overheat easily. However, they can tolerate nighttime temps as low as 50°F, so nighttime heating should not be necessary during most of the year.
Best humidity levels for Eastern box turtles
Eastern box turtles need an average humidity of 60-80%. There should also be a humid hide on the cool side, lined with moistened sphagnum moss. Humidity should be measured via digital probe hygrometer, with the probe placed in the middle of the enclosure.
Increase humidity by misting the enclosure 1-2x/day with a pressure sprayer. Mist first thing in the morning and then again at night if needed. Mixing water directly into the substrate also helps with maintaining high humidity.
If you are housing your box turtle outdoors, humidity should not be much of an issue as long as you don’t live in a particularly dry climate. Just make sure to provide free access to a humid hideout, shade, and plenty of lightly moistened leaf litter.
Best substrate for Eastern box turtles
Providing a thick layer of naturalistic substrate (“bedding”) will help maintain correct humidity levels and also provide something for your turtle to dig in as desired. We recommend the following substrates for Eastern box turtles:
We also recommend providing a thick layer of leaf litter for enhanced humidity and enrichment value. If you are housing your box turtle outdoors, provide areas of different types of substrate (sand, mulch, leaf litter, stone, soil, grass, etc.) for more effective thermoregulation.
Substrate should be at least 2” deep and completely replaced every 3-4 months. Remove poop and urates daily, along with contaminated substrate.
How to decorate an Eastern box turtle enclosure
An empty terrarium makes for a bored turtle, reducing its quality of life. Keep your pet entertained and engaged with its environment with the strategic use of décor items that encourage it to exercise natural behaviors!
Here are some ideas to get you started:
- piles of leaf litter
- additional hiding places/burrows
- large hollow logs
- live, edible plants
- large, flat stones
The more stuff you add, the more functional your enclosure is likely to become!
What to feed to an Eastern box turtle
Eastern box turtles are omnivorous, which means that they need both plant- and animal-based foods in order to get the right nutrition. For best health, offer a balance of 45% plants and 55% low-fat animal protein.
Young and growing turtles younger than 5 years old should be fed daily, while turtles older than 5 years should be fed every other day. For best results, offer food first thing in the morning.
Protein sources for Eastern box turtles: cockroaches, earthworms, mealworms, superworms, snails, millipedes, grasshoppers, crickets, moths, hornworms, silkworms, black soldier fly larvae, darkling beetles, pinky mice, quail chicks, wet cat food
Safe vegetables for Eastern box turtles: cactus pads, kale, collard greens, turnip greens, mustard greens, dandelion greens + flowers, watercress, broccoli, escarole, swiss chard, parsley, spinach, endive, romaine lettuce, hibiscus leaves + flowers, nasturtium, honeysuckle
Safe fruits for Eastern box turtles: grapes, blackberries, cherries, strawberries, plums, apples, persimmons, cantaloupe, mulberries, tomatoes
You will also need calcium and vitamin supplements to prevent your turtle from developing a potential deficiency. We recommend Repashy Calcium Plus LoD, lightly dusted on each protein item. Occasional use of Repashy Superpig as a carotenoid supplement is a good way to help maintain your turtle’s vibrant color.
Of course, don’t forget a water bowl! Eastern box turtles like to soak, so you will need a shallow “puddle” of water for them to soak in and drink from. Change the water daily and scrub the dishes weekly with a reptile-safe disinfectant, or whenever it becomes soiled with feces.
How to handle your Eastern box turtle
Reptiles generally don’t appreciate petting and handling in the same way that dogs and cats do. That being said, Eastern box turtles generally tolerate human interaction pretty well! If you have to pick up your turtle, be gentle and try to pick it up from the side or below rather than from above. Handling should be minimized, but they do tend to appreciate gentle scratches and treats.
*This care sheet contains only very basic information. Although it’s a good introduction, please further your research with high-quality sources. The more you know, the better you will be able to care for your pet!