The eastern box turtle, or Terrapene carolina carolina, is one of just two species of box turtles in North America and is the most common of the two. These small turtles have very unique characteristics and their colors and shapes vary. They have a very long life span and are often kept as domestic pets. Eastern box turtles are the state reptiles for both Tennessee and North Carolina.
This little turtle has a hinged shell with a domed top and flat bottom. Unlike many other turtles, the eastern box turtle can close its shell up completely when threatened or frightened. The shells are usually brown or black, with a yellow or orange line pattern throughout. Their skin is usually brown, with purple, yellow or white spots. Young turtles are more brightly colored than their older counterparts.
Eastern box turtles have sharply horned beaks and short wide legs. Their feet have webs at their bases and they have scales over their shells. When mature, they are just 7 to 8 inches (18 to 20 cm) long. The sex of the turtles can be determined by eye color. Male turtles have red eyes, while the female eyes are brown. In addition, the male has a flatter, wider tail and a flatter shell.
In the wild, the eastern box turtle can be found living in open fields, swampy areas, and underbrush. They are not aquatic turtles, but often live at water's edge, where food is readily available. They hibernate during cold winters, burrowing as much as 2 feet (61 cm) into soft earth in these areas.
The eastern box turtle is an omnivore and eats a widely varied diet. It is partial to invertebrates such as grasshoppers, crickets grubs, and worms. It may also eat small mice and fish. Greens such as dandelions, lettuce, and chicory are consumed when available, and these turtles even enjoy mushrooms.
Like other common box turtles, the eastern box turtle can live quite a long time. In the wild, they can survive for as long as 80 years or more, but in captivity they will usually live for less than 50 years. Although the female turtle can lay several hundred eggs in her lifetime, not many make it to adulthood. Eastern box turtles are hunted for food by both animals and humans in many areas and are also frequently hit by cars. In addition, when captive turtles are returned to the wild, they will use their homing instinct to try to return to the area where they were born, which also increases their risk of being killed by predators.
While these reptiles are often caught and kept as pets, it is difficult to keep them alive in a home environment. They have special needs that are not easily met in these situations. High humidity and warm temperatures are necessities, as is frequent exposure to ultraviolet light or direct sunlight. A soft substance for them to burrow in and a constant supply of fresh clean water are also needed. Supplemental vitamins may also be required for a pet turtle's proper shell formation and overall growth.