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Box Turtles and People

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Published on: Jul. 2, 2006

Last revision: Nov. 29, 2010

Three-Toed Box Turtle

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Out of the 17 or so kinds of turtles native to Missouri, none are as well-known as our two species of box turtles. Even folks who aren’t into fishing, hunting, hiking, bird watching or gardening have had opportunities to observe box turtles. Too often, unfortunately, such opportunities involve these reptiles trying to cross roads or highways.

The location of Missouri between the forested eastern United States and the prairies of the Great Plains has allowed plants and wildlife of the two regions to mingle. This is definitely the case with our two species of box turtle. The three-toed box turtle is closely related to a species found east of the Mississippi River, while the ornate box turtle has relatives to the west.

Turtle versus terrapin

The name “box turtle” refers to the ability of this reptile to tightly close its shell when frightened. It does this by means of a hinge located across its lower shell. When startled, the turtle pulls its head and limbs into its shell for protection. Then it moves each half of the hinged lower shell up to meet the upper shell, thus closing like a box.

The name “terrapin” is often used for box turtles in Missouri, though it isn’t quite correct. The dictionary’s definition of the word terrapin refers to edible, aquatic turtles found in fresh and brackish waters of North America. Box turtles should not be considered edible, nor are they aquatic. However, the word terrapin is used by people of the British Isles to refer to any and all species of turtles. This could be the source of the word usage in southern Missouri.

To complicate the matter further, the scientific name (genus) of North American box turtles is Terrapene. In reality, our box turtles are closely related to semi-aquatic turtles found in rivers and wetlands, such as red-eared sliders and painted turtles.

Box turtles’ diet

Both three-toed and ornate box turtles are fond of eating soft-bodied insects and earthworms, and the young of both species eat a higher percentage of these foods than anything else. However, there are some differences in the overall diets of the adults.

Adult three-toed box turtles eat more plant material and fruit than ornate box turtles. In the wild, they are known to eat strawberries, mulberries, black raspberries and blackberries. Mushrooms, tender shoots and flowers are also eaten.

Ornate box turtles living in a grassland habitat eat grasshoppers, crickets and caterpillars. Yet, they will eat wild

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