What Do Box Turtles Eat?

If you live in North America, specifically the central and eastern United States and Mexico, chances are you’ve encountered a box turtle in the wild. These largely terrestrial turtles appear similar to tortoises but actually belong to the pond turtle family. There are six different species of box turtles in the family Emydidae. They each possess a distinctive domed shell with a hinged bottom. This feature allows them to retract their head and legs in order to avoid predators. Box turtles make popular pets and are commonly seen in pet stores. Unfortunately, a number of populations are now vulnerable, and many are taken from the wild each year to support the pet trade. It’s important for people to understand box turtles and their specific needs in order to protect these magnificent reptiles. For starters, today we hope to answer the question, “what do box turtles eat?”

By learning about the diet of box turtles, you’ll be much better prepared to care for one if you take one as a pet. Additionally, you can inform others as to their dietary habits, which should raise awareness about their unique struggles. We’ll start off by talking about what box turtles like to eat. Next, we’ll discuss how box turtles use their senses to hunt and forage for food. Then, we’ll compare the diets of wild box turtles versus pet box turtles. Finally, we’ll end with a brief discussion about what baby box turtles eat. So, let’s not waste any more time and answer the question, “what do box turtles eat?”

What Do Box Turtles Like to Eat?

Box turtles enjoy eating a wide variety of food including fruits, vegetables, greens, insects, and other small animals.

Like most turtles, box turtles are omnivores, meaning they eat both animal and plant matter. By and large, box turtles are not picky eaters and will eat pretty much anything they catch. Their diet is quite varied and can change depending on the season and their habitat. Overall, animal protein makes up the bulk of a box turtle’s diet. However, this can vary considerably in the wild, and also alters with the age of the turtle. Some research indicates that young box turtles are primarily carnivorous while older turtles are more herbivorous. That said, the scientific community has yet to come to any reasonable consensus over this claim. Still, there is some agreement on the types of foods that box turtles like to eat. As such, we’ve assembled a list of 15 foods that most box turtles like to eat. These 15 foods include:

  • Worms
  • Invertebrates
  • Insects
  • Spiders
  • Roots
  • Fruits
  • Birds
  • Small amphibians
  • Flowers
  • Eggs
  • Small reptiles
  • Fish
  • Vegetables
  • Other turtles
  • Carrion

How Do Box Turtles Hunt and Forage for Food?

what do eastern box turtles eat
Box turtles possess both a keen sense of eyesight and smell.

Box turtles possess a number of keen senses that they use in order to hunt and forage for food. These include both an excellent sense of eyesight and smell. A box turtle’s eyes are positioned on the side of its head. They have great color vision and can see well both during the day and at night. However, due to their shell, they struggle with peripheral vision, which can make them susceptible to predators. Meanwhile, their nose is located just above their mouth and acts much in the same way as a human nose. Their sense of smell is quite keen and allows them to find food and other turtles. Box turtles don’t have external ears but are still able to hear. That said, their hearing is not very acute, and likely serves little purpose in finding food.

In the wild, box turtles employ a number of tactics when hunting and foraging. Younger turtles tend to spend more time hunting in ponds and streams. Meanwhile, older turtles generally spend more time hunting and foraging on land. When prey gets too close, a box turtle will dart its head out quickly to capture its target. At max speed, most box turtles can only move at around 0.25 miles per hour. As such, box turtles mostly rely on ambush tactics to catch their food rather than direct pursuit. The upper and lower jaws of a box turtle are quite hard and sharp and covered in horny ridges. This allows them to both chew tough, fibrous vegetation and to also chop up animal matter into smaller pieces. Aside from hunting, box turtles also spend a lot of time foraging and will eat plants from the water surface or on land.

What Do Box Turtles Eat in the Wild?

Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina) walking on grass.
Box turtles will eat pretty much anything that they can find in the wild including other turtles.

In the wild, box turtles will eat pretty much anything that they can catch or find. According to estimates, animal matter usually makes up the bulk of a wild box turtle’s diet. Generally speaking, insects and invertebrates are a box turtle’s primary sources of protein. They eat a wide variety of prey including earthworms, beetles, grasshoppers, crickets, caterpillars, millipedes, centipedes, slugs, and snails. Box turtles will also eat small amphibians such as frogs, toads, and tadpoles, and small reptiles like lizards and snakes. Sometimes, they may prey on small birds, fish, or crayfish. Occasionally, box turtles will prey on other smaller turtles and have been known to eat carrion when available. They also eat a wide variety of plant material including roots, grasses, leaves, shoots, and other vegetation. Box turtles also enjoy the occasional serving of fruit such as berries, and also will eat mushrooms.

What Do Pet Box Turtles Eat?

Close-up of Box Turtle
It’s advised to feed your pet box turtle a wide variety of greens, insects, and some fruit to keep them healthy.

Box turtles can make good pets but require special care. They can easily get stressed if over-handled, and can be injured by pets or if left to aimlessly wander in a new environment. Most specialists recommend that you feed a box turtle a diet of 50% plant material and 50% animal protein. Of the plant material, only around 10% should consist of fruit. Generally speaking, safe animal protein includes things like grasshoppers, crickets, mealworms, earthworms, and hard-boiled eggs. You can also buy commercial reptile pellets to supplement your box turtle’s protein needs. As for plant material, stick to things like leafy greens. Good examples include collard greens, chard, kale, and bok choy. You can provide some fruit such as berries, melons, mango, or apples, but only in small quantities. Box turtles also enjoy flowers, and safe options include dandelions, hibiscus, and geraniums.

What Do Baby Box Turtles Eat?

Tiny Box Turtle crawling around on grass.
Some evidence suggests that young box turtles are more carnivorous than their adult counterparts.

Also known as hatchlings, baby box turtles are usually born in late summer or fall and usually go into hibernation shortly after that. After birth, they usually remain in the den where they are born or will explore for a few days before entering hibernation. Prior to entering hibernation, they do not require any food. Once they emerge from hibernation, baby box turtles will eat the same foods as adult box turtles. That said, research suggests that animal protein may make up a more significant part of a baby box turtle’s diet compared to an adult box turtle. They tend to spend more of their time in or near water, living in ponds or streams. Due to their size, they are more limited in their prey types and may focus more on insects and invertebrates rather than larger prey. Make sure to closely monitor your baby box turtle’s feeding habits.

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