Three-Toed Box Turtle

Terrapene carolina triunguis


Three-toed box turtle
Three-toed box turtle

Emydidae (basking, marsh, and box turtles) in the order Testudines (turtles)


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.


Video of box turtles in the wild.

Three-Toed Box Turtle in Rock Bridge Park

Three-Toed Box Turtle in Rock Bridge Park
Three-Toed Box Turtle in Rock Bridge Park
Three-Toed Box Turtle in Rock Bridge Park

Three-Toed Box Turtle

Close-up of turtle showing red eyes and bright red spots on legs.
Three-Toed Box Turtle in St Elizabeth, Miller Co.

Three-Toed Box Turtle

A turtle with a red head and a scraped-up shell walks through leaves outside a garage.
Three-toed box turtle in House Springs
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.

Three-Toed Box Turtle Distribution Map
Distribution in Missouri

Statewide, excluding the northwestern corner and extreme northern Missouri.


Turtles have generally been declining statewide, mainly due to loss of habitat.

Life cycle

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.

Human connections

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.

Ecosystem connections

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.