Eastern Box Turtles, the Official Reptile of North Carolina - Carolina Country

Nature’s Living Jewel

The perseverance and lore of eastern box turtles

By Rue Reynold

Nature’s Living Jewel

Photo courtesy of NCWRC

Emerging from a cozy, leafy burrow as the morning sun warms its shell is a creature well known to North Carolinians. With keen eyes scanning the forest floor for a succulent berry or a plump earthworm, the damp earth beneath its feet is familiar and comforting. It is an eastern box turtle, whose vibrant shell and quiet resolve have made it both a marvel of nature and a symbol in folklore and cultures worldwide.

A closer look

Eastern box turtles are terrestrial reptiles native to the eastern United States. Its most distinctive feature is its high-domed shell, called a carapace, which is adorned with vibrant patterns ranging from yellow, orange, red and brown, making it resemble a stained-glass window. This colorful shell provides excellent camouflage among the forest floor’s dappled sunlight and fallen leaves, and like other box turtles, has the ability to close completely to protect against predators.

Life in the leaf litter

Eastern box turtles prefer deciduous or mixed forests with plenty of underbrush and leaf litter for cover, though they will inhabit moist environments during hot or dry weather. Their diet is omnivorous and highly varied, ranging from insects and worms to berries, fungi and even carrion. This diet is key for forest health, as eastern box turtles help control insect populations and disperse seeds through their droppings. The dietary flexibility is also a vital part of their survival, as they can live for several decades, with a few individuals even surpassing 100 years.

Symbolism and folklore

Many stories and legends exist about turtles in general, portraying them as wise and ancient creatures that embody the spirit of nature. They hold a cherished place in many Native American cultures. They are seen as a symbol of patience, perseverance and the steadfast passage of time. In some creation myths, the Earth itself is said to rest on the back of a giant turtle. Turtles are also often considered the keepers of knowledge in Cherokee folklore, and in some stories, land was created by soil found on a turtle’s foot.

Picturing the eastern box turtle navigating the intricacies of its leafy domain, it becomes clear why these creatures are so revered. They are not just survivors. They are integral parts of the ecosystems they inhabit; living jewels that remind us of the resilience and beauty of nature.

box turtle

Photo courtesy of NCWRC/Jeff Hall

Eastern Box Turtle Facts

  • North Carolina made the eastern box turtle our official state reptile in 1979.
  • Eastern box turtles have a homing instinct, often returning to the same area where they were born — even after being relocated miles away.
  • The colors and patterns on an eastern box turtle’s shell are as unique as a human fingerprint, making it possible to identify individuals based on shell markings.
  • Eastern box turtles can be found everywhere in North Carolina except along the Outer Banks.
  • They are declining in number due to habitat loss, slow maturation, low birth rate and a tendency to get hit by cars, making it more important than ever to protect and conserve.

About the Author

Rue Reynold is the editorial assistant for Carolina Country

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