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The Naturalist's Corner: Eastern box turtle, our state reptile

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in a June 2001 issue of The Smoky Mountain News

Taksi was a legendary warrior with legs so stout and armor so strong he could withstand mighty blows. Even when he grew old, he retained his armor and stout legs. His magic was so powerful young Cherokee warriors would rub their own legs against Taksi in hopes of acquiring his legendary prowess.

It may be hard for us to imagine the eastern box turtle, Tarrapene carolina carolina, as a powerful warrior, but somewhere along the line this toadstool munching reptile was impressive enough to be named the state reptile of North Carolina. The eastern box turtle is a tortoise or terrestrial turtle. Although they are excellent swimmers and are occasionally found soaking in shallow water, these critters generally prefer woodland habitats.

The eastern box turtle may reach a length of eight inches. It has a high, domed, slightly keeled upper shell or carapace. The carapace ranges in color from brownish black to olive. There is often a variable pattern of yellow and/or orange blotches. The shell is divided into sections called scutes. Scutes of younger box turtles often have concentric growth rings much like growth rings of a tree. As the turtle grows older, however, these rings disappear and the shells become smooth. Box turtles are long-lived. There are verifiable records of 40-year-old specimens and claims of 100-year-old turtles.

The box turtle gets its name from its hinged plastron or bottom shell. The hinge runs across the width of the plastron, near the front. It allows the turtle to withdraw its head and forelimbs and raise the plastron up against the carapace, effectively closing the “box.”

There are secondary sexual characteristics that allow one to differentiate between genders in the field. The plastron of the male is concave whereas the plastron of the female is flat. The concave plastron allows the male to mount the female during copulation.

The tail of the male is longer and thicker than that of the female and the anus is farther back. A bulge can often be detected at the base of the male’s tail. The male also has longer, larger and more curved claws on its hind feet. Although both sexes usually have orange and yellow spots along the neck and side of the face, they are brighter in the male. Adult males also have brighter red or orange eyes. The eyes of the female are dullish, yellowish-brown or dark red.

Eastern box turtles achieve sexual maturity around four years of age. They generally mate as soon as they become active in the spring but sometimes courtship continues into summer and fall. The act of mating is quite ritualized. It begins with the male approaching the female. He stops a few inches from her. The female retracts into her box. The male approaches with head held high and legs straightened. The male circles the female, nudging her and biting her carapace until she finally opens her plastron. When the male mounts the female, he slides his feet forward and the female closes her shell on his claws. After copulation, the male bites the front edge of the female’s shell and she opens her plastron.

Female eastern box turtles may retain sperm for up to four years after mating. Eggs are deposited in shallow nests excavated by the female. Nesting in WNC generally occurs in June and July. While eastern box turtles are primarily diurnal, nests are most often excavated under the cover of darkness. The female deposits a clutch of three to six eggs and covers the nest and compacts the soil with her plastron. Some eastern box turtle lay several clutches of eggs per year.

Eggs may take as long as three months to hatch. Babies usually leave the nest in September or October but late hatchlings may overwinter in the nest, emerging in the spring. The hatchlings are only about one inch long and vulnerable to a plethora of predators including raccoons, rats, snakes, possums, crows and others. For safety, young box turtles stay hidden much of the time and are rarely seen in the wild.

Most eastern box turtles establish a permanent home range. The size of the range depends on habitat, but five to 10 acres is normal. Not all individuals establish a home range. The wanderers are usually male and their travels aid the species by carrying genes between isolated populations.

Young box turtles consume many animals, including insects, slugs, worms, salamanders and crayfish. As they get older, they consume more plant material such as berries, mushrooms, leaves and grasses.

In the wild, adults have few predators. The tightly closed shell provides good protection from most non-human dangers but is no match for SUVs. Thousands of box turtles are crushed by autos every year. Thousands more are collected; victims of the pet trade. And still more are displaced and ultimately die from loss of habitat as concrete and asphalt replace the more hospitable forest floor.

The great warrior Taksi may have finally met his match.

(Don Hendershot is a naturalist and a writer who lives in Haywood County. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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