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Research: Eastern Box Turtle Study

Dates Conducted: 1986 - present
Lead Researcher: Dr. Randy Van Dragt, Professor of Biology & Director of Ecosystem Preserve
Student Researchers: Preserve Stewards

students researching


The Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina) is a species of special concern in Michigan due to the loss of habitat. This study observes the interactions of the box turtle with their environment through the process of tracking and documentation. One of the preserve’s goal is to protect these turtles from the dangers of urban growth by preserving their natural environment.

box turtle walking

The Study

As a long-term monitoring study, the research is conducted over lengths of time as turtles are found throughout the preserve. When a turtle is found, it is taken into captivity where further study is conducted. If the turtle has never been found before, it is marked with several notches on the rear margin of its carapace (top shell). The location of the turtle is documented and mapped, and noted is the date, carapace length, gender, and distinguishing marks for identification. Numerous photos are taken of the turtle to document the unique patterns on its head and shell. Once the turtle has properly been documented, it is released back into the wild. When the same turtle is spotted again, it is brought back into captivity where its new location, date and carapace length are documented. By keeping track of these animals, the preserve can study their behavior, migration patterns, population density, and even their maturity rate.

notches in shell measuring box turtle

Tracking Radios

In the summer of 1995, small tracking radios were attached to a male and a female Eastern Box Turtle. The study showed the female staying within an immediate area of 100 ft. near a strawberry patch, while the male moved back and forth from one side of the preserve to the other, likely seeking a mate. This specific study gave the preserve information on their migration habits. Though this method of radio transmitters has not been used since, the preserve continues to study the movement of the turtles by documenting their sightings.


Eastern Box Turtles have a tall, dome-shaped carapace hinged to the plastron (bottom shell). The carapace is a brownish-tan color and has yellow or orange designs. The plastron is a tan color with dark splotches, or brown or black. The rough, scaly skin is colored black, reddish-brown, or grey with yellow-orange marks. Males are distinguishable from females by their larger size, longer and thicker tails, bright red eyes, and concave carapaces. Females have brown eyes and flatter carapaces.

box turtle face

box turtle plastron box turtle rear


Native to Michigan, the Eastern Box Turtle is often found in deciduous forests, pastures, dunes and fields where sandy dirt and bodies of water are present. Though good swimmers, they are considered terrestrial animals as most of their time is spent on land. The Eastern Box Turtle is a territorial animal, spending most of its life in the same area with a diameter of a few hundred yards.

Dangers and Threats

The greatest danger for turtles is the spread of urban and suburban development as it fragments their natural habitat. Many are run over by vehicles as they are forced to cross roads. In addition, as woodland habitats fragment between areas of urban growth, competition and extinction rates increase, posing greater natural threats against the species’ survival.

box turtle

How Can You Help?

If you find a turtle in the wild, leave it. Domesticating wild turtles can greatly affect the local populations due to their slow maturity rates. The greatest contribution we can make is by leaving them alone.

Turtles have a natural capability to survive, but there are situations in which we can help. If you see a turtle at the side of a road, take the time to gently move it back into the woods, preferably on the side it was directed towards. In addition, if you see a turtle flipped on its back, carefully flip it over. Another way to help your local turtles is by leaving fallen logs or branches near bodies of water. Turtles use these to bask in the sun.