The Three Toed Box Turtle

Three-toed Box Turtle, Terrapene carolina triunguis, central USA
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The three toed box turtle is about 3.5 to 5 inches in length, and usually has only three toes on the hind feet (although sometimes they have 4, like other box turtles). They have a high domed carapace (shell) that is usually an olive brown with some yellow markings. On the plastron, there may be dark areas. The skin is brown with some yellow spots, and the males may have red markings on their heads (and sometimes red, orange and black on the neck and forelegs).

Sexing Three Toed Box Turtles

Males often have red or orange markings on the head and sometimes the neck and forelegs. They also have longer, thicker tails than the females. In addition, the plastron is slightly concave in males and flatter in females. Males have red irises. Typically, the the claws on the hind feet are shorter and more curved than those on the females.

Life Span

As with other box turtles, three toed box turtles can be very long-lived, possibly up to 100 years. Sadly, many in captivity will not survive that long (30-40 years is more typical; even shorter with less than ideal care).


While it is possible to keep three toed box turtles (especially hatchlings and juveniles) in a large indoor terrarium (aquariums are too small), they do much better in outdoor enclosures where the climate is agreeable. They should have easy access to a shallow pan of water at all times. As well, they should have access to hiding spots, and loose litter for burrowing.

Temperatures and Light

If kept in an outdoor pen, make sure there are both sunny and shady areas available (the turtle should be able to move from cooler to warmer areas as necessary). Indoors, a terrarium will need a heat source as well as a UVB emitting reptile light. Provide a basking spot with temperatures of 85 - 88 F, maintaining the terrarium with a gradient down to about 75 F.

The nightime temperature should not drop below 70 F.


It is not unusual for three toed box turtles to wade into shallow water to drink and have a soak, perhpas moreso than other North American species. Provide a large shallow pan of clean water at all times, but make sure they can easily get in and out of the water without tipping (or drowning, of course). Regularly mist their pen or run a sprinkler for added moisture, as three toed box turtles prefer a bit more humidity than others.


Adult three toed box turtles are omnivores. Approximately half of their diet should be made up of vegetables, fruit, and hay/grasses. The remainder is made up of low fat protein sources; whole live foods are ideal (earthworms, slugs, snails, mealworms, crickets, grasshoppers, small fish, etc) but cooked lean meats and low fat dog food can be added as a supplement. Hatchlings are more carnivorous.


Natural Habitat: three toed box turtles can live in a wide variety of habitats from woodlands to meadows, but are usually found near a water source. They often venture into shallow water, perhaps moreso than other North American box turtles. As with other North American box turtles, three toed box turtle hibernate when it is colder (in warmer climates they stay active longer).

They are found from Missouri south to Texas and Alabama.

Box turtle populations are declining (listed by CITES as threatened, and import/export permits are necessary). Many states protect box turtle populations and have laws against collecting box turtles from the wild. It is best to get a pet box turtle bred in captivity from a reputable breeder. Wild caught turtles do not adjust well to captivity and many die from the stress. Pet stores often carry wild caught turtles.