Texas Nature Trackers: Box Turtle Survey Project
When was the last time you saw a box turtle? Although many Texans can recall frequent encounters with box turtles in backyards, on ranches, and along roadways as kids, many Texans report that they are now hard to find. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department would like to know if you see a box turtle in the state.
- iNaturalist Texas Box Turtle Survey Project
- Printable Box Turtle Reporting Form and Identification Guide | PDF
Box Turtles can be distinguished from other native Texas turtles by having a single hinge at the front of the lower shell (plastron), allowing them to fold it up and closing the front of the shell entirely; thus the common name of "box turtle." Box turtles also have a hooked upper jaw ("beak") that is lacking in other Texas turtles.
The only other land turtle in Texas is the Texas Tortoise; it lacks any hinges on the plastron, has a head entirely covered with scales rather than having skin, and has a very rough upper shell (carapace). Male box turtles have red eyes (females yellow or golden), a longer tail with a thick base (females shorter and thinner), and a somewhat concave plastron (females have a flat one).
Box Turtle Species in Texas
Two box turtle species occur in Texas, the Eastern, or Three-toed, Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina) and the Ornate Box Turtle (Terrapene ornata)
Eastern, or Three-Toed, Box Turtle: The carapace (top portion of shell) of the Eastern Box Turtle is noticeably longer than wide, domed with a narrow keel lengthwise down the center, and has some flaring at the rear edge. The tallest point of the shell is well back towards the tail, so viewed side ways it’ll be tallest at the back of the turtle.
The carapace is light brown to tan with a few dark flecks on it. The plastron is normally solid yellow without any markings, although the edges individual plates may be dark. Orange, yellow or red spots sometimes visible on head and forelegs. The subspecies in Texas (Terrapene carolina triunguis) almost always has three toes on each hind foot, hence the name Three-toed Box Turtle.
Ornate Box Turtle: The carapace of the Ornate Box Turtle is relatively broad and oval, usually slightly flattened at the top, and lacks both a narrow keel lengthwise down the center and any flaring at the rear edge. The tallest point of the shell is just in front of the hinge on the plastron, so viewed sideways it’ll be tallest at the front of the turtle.
The carapace is dark with many yellow lines, sometimes grouped into “starbursts” radiating downward, and the plastron (bottom of shell) is dark brown or black with a pattern similar to the carapace. There are almost always four toes on each hind foot.