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Oklahoma State University
Center for Veterinary Health Sciences

Healthy Animals - Healthy People

Box Turtles and People

Monday, August 14 2017

three toed box turtle

Oklahoma is home to two box turtle species—the three-toed, Terrapene carolina, and the ornate, Terrapene ornata

These turtles have similar diets of insects, worms, mushrooms and fruit.  They will burry themselves to escape the heat of summer or the cold in winter. 

Box turtles are named after their ability to close their plastron or bottom shell up against their carapace or upper shell.  The plastron has a hinge to aid with this, and it allows for the turtle to completely hide and protect its head and limbs. 

To differentiate between the two box turtles, look at the pattern on the shell. 

Three-toed box turtles can be quite variable, but are typically a tan brown with some yellow spots or light stripes.  The plastron is usually not patterned and the carapace may have a slight ridge down the center. 

The ornate box turtle is consistently dark brown with highly contrasting yellow lines radiating downwards.  The plastron is heavily marked with similar colors.

Box turtles are currently doing well in Oklahoma.  However, their populations are declining drastically elsewhere.

Each spring many turtles die from accidents with cars. For turtles to continue to thrive in Oklahoma, drive slowly or assist the turtles crossing the road. This well help many to live to reproduce the next generation of turtles.

Due to their enigmatic and docile nature, box turtles are often enjoyed by the people who find them.  Racing turtles has a long history in Oklahoma with the event possibly originating in Kay County in 1924. 

In conjunction with racing turtles, a tradition of painting and decorating turtles evolved and continues today. These activities are often seen throughout the summer.

Did you know that turtle racing and decorating can have negative consequences as well?

These events can mix and spread disease among the participants.  Additionally, painting turtles essentially puts a target on their back, allowing predators to readily locate the turtle. 

Turtles, like us, also utilize sunlight to produce vitamin D in their skin.  This is essential for them to utilize the calcium in their diet and maintain a strong skeleton and shell.  Covering the skin may prevent this essential process from happening.   

When participating in turtle races, simply putting the turtles back where you found them, under a bush or shade object if it’s hot outside. This can go a long way to keeping the turtle population healthy for the future. 

It is also imperative not to mix wild turtles with pet turtles. This is particularly important for exotic species, as diseases can be transmitted to the wild turtles which can then spread and decimate local populations. 

If you plan to decorate your turtle, use a water based paint, and wash it off prior to releasing the turtle.

by Ian Kanda, RVT


Veterinary Viewpoints is provided by the faculty of the OSU Veterinary Medical Hospital.  Certified by the American Animal Hospital Association, the hospital is open to the public providing routine and specialized care for all species and 24-hour emergency care, 365 days a year.