The bottom shell (plastron) is hinged so it can close against the upper shell (carapace). This species has 3 (or 4) hind toes. The carapace is high-domed, usually has a top ridge, and is olive or brown with faint yellow or orange lines on the scutes (horny scales on the carapace). The plastron is yellow with brown smudges. Males have red eyes, orange on the head and forelimbs, a concave plastron, and a thick tail; females have yellow-brown eyes, less orange, a flat plastron, and a small tail.
Similar species: The ornate box turtle usually has four toes on each hind leg, lacks a ridge along the center of the top shell, and the top shell is usually brown with numerous yellow lines radiating from the center of each plate. It is more of a grassland species than the three-toed box turtle and is found statewide except for the Bootheel.
Carapace length: 4½–5 inches.
Statewide, excluding the northwestern corner and extreme northern Missouri.
Habitat and Conservation
This is the common box turtle of Ozark woodlands. Generally a forest species, it’s also found on forest edges and brushy fields. Adults usually have a home range of 2–5 acres. Thousands of box turtles are killed on roads by vehicles. Overwintering burrows can prove inadequate during hard winters, and many turtles are starved or killed by humans trying to keep them as pets. Leave turtles in the wild, follow the speed limit, and keep your eyes on the road.
Young three-toed box turtles consume mostly earthworms and insects, but adults tend to be more vegetarian, eating a variety of plants, berries, and mushrooms.
Turtles have generally been declining statewide, mainly due to loss of habitat.
Three-toed box turtles become active about April. Courtship and mating last from late April to July or later. The male courts by pulsating his orange throat. Most egg-laying occurs from May to early July. At dusk, the female selects an elevated, open patch of soil or sand and digs a hole with her hind legs. A clutch is usually 3–8 eggs, which hatch in about 3 months. There are 1–2 clutches per season. Box turtles dig into leaf litter and soil and go dormant to survive winter.
Of all the reptiles, turtles are the most admired by humans for their symbolic characteristics of slow, steady progress, longevity, and resilience as well as for their unique body form. They can live to be 50 or even 80 years old.
Even though adult box turtles are defended by their shells, the eggs and young provide food for many predators. Hatchlings are only about 1 inch long and are especially vulnerable.