This piece began life as a wood carving, inspired by a young eastern box turtle that my daughter and I discovered one day by our mailbox in Virginia. This piece has been one of my most popular pieces. After all, who doesn’t love box turtles??
Box turtles are native only to North America (the United States and Mexico). In fossil records, box turtles appeared rather suddenly, about 15 million years ago, with the oldest fossil records being found in Nebraska. In the U.S., they are found in the wild in all states, except Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, and Utah. This means, according to which species/ subspecies they are, that they can be found in a full range of habitats, from open woodlands to grasslands, marshy meadows to semi-desert regions. Often, they will be found near streams and ponds.
U.S. box turtles are divided into 2 species – the Eastern box turtle, and the Western box turtle. There are 4 subspecies of Eastern box turtles found in the U.S. – one subspecies is called simply the Eastern box turtle, and there is also the Three-toed box turtle who lives west of the Mississippi River, the Florida box turtle, and the Gulf Coast box turtle. There are 2 subspecies of Western box turtles- the Ornate box turtle, and the Desert box turtle. Some species have brightly colored patterns, while others have almost no color.
A box turtle’s shell is made up of various sections called “scutes”. The high domed top shell (called the carapace), and the bottom shell (called the plastron) which is divided and is hinged across the bottom, allows the box turtle to close up tightly to avoid predators. This makes the box turtle unique. (Other turtles can pull in their heads, legs, and tails to a certain point, but they cannot close up their shells.) This ability to close up tight develops when they are about ¼ grown. (Most defend themselves by hiding or biting, though they are not really known as biters.) Box turtles lead a slow-but-steady lifestyle, going about their days with purpose. However, with such a high domed shell, if a box turtle gets flipped over on its back, and cannot right itself, it will die of exhaustion and starvation.
If a box turtle’s shell gets injured, it can sometimes re-grow. As adults, they reach an average length of approximately 8”. They have a ridge that runs over the top of the shell for the whole length of the carapace. Their toes are only slightly webbed, and generally have five toes on the front feet, and 4 toes on the back (though the Three-toed box turtle has only three toes on their hind feet!). And their upper jaw is slightly hooked.