Breeding Your Box Turtle
Article by Tess Cook

Box turtles come out of hibernation in March or April and most adult males have a strong urge to mate. They may not feel like eating, but if there is a female box turtle around, he’ll feel like reproducing. Many owners of multiple box turtles will tell you stories about their male box turtle’s clumsy attempts to mate or about an anxious female looking for a place to lay her eggs. Everything is left to chance and the owners are quite surprised when they see hatchlings emerge and don’t have a clue as to how to care for them. This is NOT the way to bring baby box turtles into the world. All breeding of captive box turtles should be
done in a responsible manner. The stresses and energy drain on both the male and female box turtles during breeding, egg formation, and laying are considerable and can make them more prone to illness and death. Also, related turtles should not be allowed to breed as bad genes are more likely to be passed on to the offspring. The offspring could be deformed and suffer a painful or early death.

If you do raise hatchlings, what are your plans for them? They cannot be allowed to breed, so you’ll have to keep males and females apart. You may think you will give them away, but who knows if other people will give them the good care they need. You should not release captive-bred turtles into the wild without investigating every outcome of your actions. If you release them in an area that already has a resident population, you may make it harder for all of them to find food. If your turtles have an illness, they could spread it to all the others turtles. As you can see, there are many questions that need to be answered before you allow your pets to breed. If you decide to breed your pets, then do it correctly.

Care of the breeding pair

Do not allow related turtles to breed. This means no brother/sister pairs or mother/son or father/daughter pairings.  The breeding pair should have optimum health. They should have been in your care for several years so you know they have eaten well and have gotten the necessary vitamins and calcium for good egg development. A sickly female that is allowed to breed may form thin-shelled eggs that easily break or don’t develop properly. A female with a damaged carapace should not be allowed to breed. There may be internal damage to her pelvis or to the bridge and it will not allow the eggs to pass out. Eggs retained in the body will cause death unless they are surgically removed.

After mating in the spring, the female turtle looks for nesting sites in June or July. Provide the egg-bearing females with a solitary outdoor pen that faces south and contains several good sites for egg laying. This pen should be equipped like the main pen, with hiding places, sunny and shady spots. It should also have several areas with soft top soil that is at least 8 inches deep. Place large tree limbs or rocks on top of the soil mounds. The nesting female may build her egg chamber next to a limb or rock. Digging the egg chamber is very time-consuming for her and may take up to 8 hours to build. The female begins by digging with her back feet and uses her legs and shell to press the soil up against the walls of the chamber. A perfectly smooth receptacle is made to receive the three to four, 1½", white, oval eggs. The shells are thin-walled and permeable.

Care of the eggs

Let Mother Nature hatch the eggs if possible. If you provide the turtle with several sites to lay her eggs, she will probably pick one with the best chance of survival. It’s also best not to move turtle eggs once they have been laid. The expense and expertise needed to artificially incubate turtle eggs is best left to expert breeders. Protect the nest site with a wire mesh cover. Secure the wire cover to the ground so animals cannot get under it and destroy the eggs. This will also protect the site from other turtles and keeps the hatchlings from escaping. The hatchlings will emerge in 90-120 days depending on how quickly they develop, which is dependent on the nest temperature. If the ground is hard you may want to water the area after the 100th day.

If eggs are laid above ground or in water, they are most likely infertile. Not every clutch of eggs will hatch and young females will often deposit infertile eggs on the ground or dig shallow nests. If you must incubate the eggs yourself, a good method is to place the eggs in a small plastic margarine tub that has been filled with moist spaghnam moss or vermiculite.  Place each egg in a depression you make with your thumb. You don’t need to bury the eggs. Do not turn the eggs over as you remove them from the ground. Place them in the tub in the exact same orientation as you find them. Poke holes into the lid of the margarine tub and place it loosely on the tub. Place the tub in an egg incubator set at 85° F. Every 2-3 days mist the eggs with distilled water. If you notice the moss drying up add more water. At 85° F the eggs should hatch in 65-90 days.

Care of the hatchlings

In the wild, hatchling mortality rate is very high and very few turtles live past their first winter. Tiny turtles are subjected to a lot of stresses and are eaten by everything from birds, rodents, and ants. If they don’t dig down deeply enough in winter they freeze, and if the springs rains come too late, the ground may not soften and they can be buried alive. As the caretaker of these hatchlings, you also have a lot to do to insure their welfare. I’ve raised both the Eastern and Ornate box turtles and their care is similar. I separate Ornate hatchlings from each other as they have proven to be much more aggressive and will bite at each other’s tails and legs. I always feed hatchlings separate as they may accidentally bite each other as they go for the food. I’ve heard horror stories of babies losing eyes or having their jaws broken by other feeders. This is totally avoidable.

Here are some other things to do for newly hatched box turtles.

Housing:  I keep box turtle hatchlings indoors for their first year. They are placed in 10 gallon tanks with moss and reptile bark substrate that have been thoroughly rinsed clean before use. Mist the substrate daily to keep the humidity high. A sock-covered heat rock is included to give off radiant heat and an overhead lamp with a 40 watt bulb is left on for 12 hours each day. A thermometer is attached to the tank and the heat maintained at 86° F during the day and dropped to 72° at night. A shallow water dish should always be filled with fresh water. I even place the babies into the water each day to be sure they are drinking. A hide box is provided.

A Vitalite(R) bulb is necessary only if you cannot get your hatchling outdoors at least once a week for an hour. I place the turtles into shallow plastic sweater boxes that are floored with reptile bark and set them outside in the sun. DO NOT LEAVE THEM ALONE.  If the sun is too intense, they will quickly overheat. On very sunny days I place a leafy branch over the box for shade and hiding.

Clean the tank at least once a month, twice a month if  you have more then one hatchling in a tank. Move the turtle to a safe place. Remove the bedding and rinse it well. It can be reused if it hasn’t been used by the hatchlings for defecation. Most turtles use the water dish as a portable potty and it should be cleaned every day, or as often as needed to keep it clean and drinkable. The tank itself is cleaned with a commercial pet housing cleaning product. These products kill germs on contact and leave no residual smells that may effect reptiles. Good housekeeping will go a long way toward keeping your hatchlings healthy. Set up a schedule for regular cleaning and many of the common problems will not occur.

If you decide to keep your hatchlings outside, provide them with their own outdoor enclosure and protect them from birds and ants. A raised garden bed that can be covered by a screen is ideal. It doesn’t have to be large but should include areas of sun and shade and a hide box. Ants have killed many baby reptiles and every precaution needs to be taken to avoid them. Place ant bait in containers outside the pens to kill ants before they become a problem. Food dishes should be removed quickly after feeding, or feed the turtles in another area.

Feeding: Hatchlings need water every day but they don’t need to be fed every day. With my first babies I followed the advice of several books and feed my hatchlings daily. At that time their meals contained only protein like tubiflex worms, Repti-Ten Sticks (R), soaked dog kibble, chopped worms, vitamin and mineral supplements. No vegetables or fruits were given. They grew very fast and had large shells, but some couldn’t right themselves if they tipped over. Their leg and neck muscles were too weak for their large size. They also has slight pyramiding of the scutes.  The scutes are pointy or raised up in the centers. These three years old box turtles were fed pinky mice several times a week, a diet too rich in protein.

My next hatchlings were fed only every other day and was given the adult menu of protein, vegetables and fruits that were very finely chopped. In two months they began to eat the vegetables before the meat. It may be true that hatchlings are more carnivorous then adults, but they should be given the choice to eat plant matter at every meal. Their bodies will tell them when they need  vegetables, plus it’s good to get them use to seeing and smelling plant foods. These babies grew at a more normal rate and their shells are not oversized compared to their bodies. I can only guess that their internal organs are also benefiting from the more natural growth.

The food dishes should be picked up after an hour. If the food remains in the tank for long, the turtles may walk over it and make the tank messy. The food could attract bugs or rot.

Medical care: If your baby box turtle does gets sick (for example, it stops eating, or its eyes become swollen shut, or its shell begins to deform), it’s time for you to concentrate on giving it a lot of tender, loving care. There isn’t much a veterinarian can do for a tiny turtle. Some vets will give them injections or force-feed them, but there is very little published information about hatchling care, and I know of baby turtles that have died after receiving shots. The best thing to do is try to find out what in your care routine is making your turtle sick and then correct it. Give the turtle extra heat, food, rest and oral or topical medicines. Ideally you should avoid problems from the start by giving box turtle hatchlings the best care. For example, one way to avoid intestinal worms is to not feed garden worms to hatchlings. If hatchlings become worm-infested, their tiny bodies may not be able to handle it, or the shots that are required to kill the worms. I feed hatchlings live foods that have
been raised by mail order companies that specialize in farm raised live foods. Waxworms are a good first live foods as they are soft bodied.

Hatchling box turtles are a joy to have, but they require a lot of extra care and time. Many people have raised baby box turtles, some with more success then others. The important difference in raising perfectly formed, strong and healthy box turtles verses weak, abnormally shaped and sickly ones is devotion to their care and your continuing efforts to learn from your mistakes and those of others.