I keep running into this female Eastern box turtle when I am out and about. She is usually out looking for a place to lay her eggs, and because I know that her particular subspecies could become threatened in the near future, I don’t even touch her.
At one time in my life, I would have taken her home. Most rural children in my part of the world collect box turtles during the early summer and try to make pets out of them.
The truth is that this subspecies, the Eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina), actually makes a terrible pet. They become deeply attached to their home range, and taking them from their home ranges stresses them so much that they become susceptible to disease and parasites.
The Eastern box turtle is a subspecies of the common North American box turtle, which used to range up into Eastern Canada as well as most of the Midwestern and Eastern US. We know only about its range in Canada from remains that have been dated to the sixteenth century, but now it is experiencing lots of problems in its range in the US. In the neighboring state of Ohio, it is a “Species of Concern,” but it is still pretty common here. I’ve seen little, tiny hatchling box turtles that aren’t much bigger than a quarter, but these little turtles aren’t maturing many parts of their range.
So I don’t recommend that anyone keep pet Eastern box turtles, especially those from wild populations. Many states ban the practice now.
Even if you have a box turtle as a pet, it requires a large enclosure, a high protein diet, and relatively high humidity.
But not all box turtles subspecies have the same problem with attachment to their home ranges than the Eastern subspecies has.
In the South-Central US. there is another subspecies of the common North American box turtle, which is called the three-toed box turtle (Terrapene carolina triunguis). I first saw these turtles at a pet store in Vienna, West Virginia, and I was amazed at how much they looked like the native subspecies. The main difference was they were mostly chocolate-brown in color and had three-toes on their back feet.
I didn’t know at the time, but these three-toed box turtles were being offered as pets simply because they were found to be much better suited to captivity than the Eastern subspecies. They still require the humidity, the large enclosure, and the high protein diet.
However, they aren’t as greatly stressed from being removed from their native ranges, and as a result they are much better able to adapt to captive conditions.
When a three-toed box turtle is released into my part of the world, they often cross with Eastern box turtles. I have often suspected that the Eastern one at the top of this page might be a hybrid, simply because she lacks the extensive yellow markings on the head.
But that could simply be a variation in the Eastern subspecies.
Whatever the story of these two box turtles is I think they can tell us a lot about how to think of wolves and dogs.
Modern wolves are very difficult to domesticate, and they make terrible pets. Dogs, of course, do very well in the human environment.
Just like the box turtles, there are minor morphological differences between wolves and the less exaggerated breeds of domestic dog.
And when given the opportunity, dogs and wolves exchange genes.
I do not know how much DNA Eastern and three-toed box turtles share. My guess is they share far less than dogs and wolves do, simply because dogs and wolves are a highly mobile, relatively large species and species with those characteristics tend to have less diversity as a species. Regional box turtle populations are going to show greater distinctiveness than a wolf or dog population when compared to the entire species.
My guess is that the split between the two subspecies happened earlier than the split between dogs and wolves, too. T
But it’s not controversial that Eastern and three-toed box turtles are just separate subspecies. However, saying the same about dogs and wolves tends to launch people. That’s because there are political and sociological reasons for classifying dogs as a separate species from the wolf, which you can’t say about the two subspecies of box turtle.
But if we’re willing to say that these two box turtles are part of a single species, what level of mental gymnastics are we willing to engage in to keep wolves and dogs separate species?
I know the answer to that question, I’m afraid.