can box turtles swim main
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Box turtles are primarily terrestrial, which means that they spend the majority of their time living on land as opposed to water. Does that mean they can’t swim? Here’s what I have found out. 

Although you would think this is an easy question, that’s not necessarily the case.

After not only owning box turtles for many years but also digging a little into this question as it often comes up, here’s what I have found.

Can Box Turtles Swim?

So, here’s the quick and short answer.

Box turtles can and do swim, however most species are not particularly adept at it, as they often look clumsy. As opposed to the long webbed feet of aquatic species such as cooters and red-eared sliders, box turtles feet are usually shorter with individual toes, features that don’t lend themselves well to swimming. Due to this, it’s advisable that you create a suitable habitat for them that contains shallow water rather than deep water.

There’s actually quite a bit to decompress and explain here, as box turtles do need to spend time in the water. However, how and where they spend that time is different from more aquatic species like painted turtles.

Like I noted above, box turtles do swim. However, they usually aren’t very good at it.

For instance, compare this short video of this red-eared slider swimming.

Compare that with this short clip of this Eastern Box Turtle swimming in a small creek.

Do All Box Turtles Swim?

Some people might be curious if there are specific species of box turtle that cannot swim. For instance:

  • Can ornate box turtles swim?
  • Do eastern box turtles swim?
  • Are 3 toed box turtles able to swim?

And while this list isn’t exhaustive, and I don’t think I could check and verify if every single species of box turtle can swim, I have not found a specific species of box turtle that could not swim when push comes to shove.

For example, just doing a little bit of digging around on Youtube, here is an example of a 3 toed box turtle swimming.

Most of the examples I came across were eastern or 3 toed box turtles. I haven’t found any examples of other species of box turtles, such as Asian box turtles or desert box turtles swimming, so if anyone does, please let me know!

That being said, based on my research I would estimate that just about every box turtle can swim if need be, such as to escape from a predator. However, if the water they are swimming in is rough or deep, it probably exponentially increases their chances of drowning.

How Long Can Box Turtles Swim?

When box turtles do swim, they often tend to swim on the top of the water, in places such as lakes, ponds, rivers, and creeks. They do this because typically, box turtles are swimming to get somewhere, say, across the small creek to the other side.

This is contrasted with cooters, sliders and painted turtles, which spend most of their day swimming around the bottoms of many of those same lakes, ponds, rivers, and creeks.

This is why it’s very rare to see a box turtle just swimming way out in the middle of some large lake. I’ve seen lots of painted turtles, cooters, and sliders out there, however!

So, they do swim, they just aren’t fantastic at it and don’t spend a lot of time doing it.

What does this mean for your pet box turtle?

Can Box Turtles Swim Underwater?

Let’s say a box turtle absolutely needs to cross a rather deep river or pond. Every example of a box turtle swimming thus far has shown them swimming at the top of the river or pond. But can they also swim underwater?

Based off my first-hand experience (more about that later), I can tell you that from what I have personally seen, if a box turtle is in deep water swimming (and lets it tires out and needs to rest) it will often sink to the bottom and just sit down there.

I can’t tell you how long they are able to do this because I have never timed them, but it was at least for a few minutes.

So while I can’t say as some authoritative source, I would say that box turtles cannot swim underwater very well. If and when they do swim, it seems to be on the top of the water.

How Much Water Your Box Turtle Needs

Both (at least most pet turtle species) need water in order to swallow and digest their food properly.

This is why you should always feed your captive turtle in the water (tortoises are different, however). 

Because their anatomy is different, however, their feeding plays out quite differently in the wild.

Aquatic turtles live the vast majority of their lives in the water. Their shells tend to be more elongated and oval, and due to their webbed feet and slick features, they can easily glide and swim in water with ease. During feeding, they usually float around, chomping at pellets, pieces of greens and insects.

Box turtles not only lack the webbed feet that aquatic species have, but their shells are usually more circular. Moreover, the bottom part of their shell (called the plastron) is hinged, which means that when they retract their heads into their shell, it closes up a bit more (for better defense).

When it comes time to feed, box turtles prefer to sit in shallow water (shallow enough so that they are not totally submerged, typically a few inches). 

That’s not the only reason why your habitat for your box turtle should contain shallow rather than deep water.

The other reason is that box turtles can drown.

Can A Box Turtle Drown?

The AAHA (American Animal Hospital Associate) lists deep pools and tanks as drowning risks for box turtles.

I wrote a more detailed article on the risks of turtle drownings that you can read here, but the basic gist is that most turtles are able to hold their breath for 15 to 30 minutes at a time.

Box turtles are especially susceptible to drowning as they tire out from swimming easier, as it takes a lot more energy for them to move in the water. They also generally are not as comfortable in it. 

A long time ago when I first began my pet turtle adventure, I made a lot of really bad husbandry (pet keeping) mistakes. One of the worst was when I was given two baby turtles:

  • A baby red-eared slider
  • A baby keeled box turtle

At the time, I knew next to nothing about turtles. Nothing about where to put them, what to feed them, or any of that. All I knew was that they lived in the water.

Or so I thought.

I got a 55-gallon tank, filled it up with water and put both my box and slider in it!

The slider took to the water effortlessly.

The box turtle, however, swam around frantically and gripped his short limbs around the filter. He would hold onto that filter for hours. I thought he just wasn’t used to swimming and that eventually, his skill would grow.

I was wrong. Big time!

After a few weeks of no improvement, and after educating myself, I had realized that I had made a gigantic mistake!

How Much Water Do Box Turtles Need?

Here’s a good rule of thumb to follow.

Keep enough water somewhere in your tank so that:

  • Your box turtle can fit its entire body in the water.
  • It is a few inches deep.
  • It will be regularly cleaned a few times a week.
  • The water must also be dechlorinated.

Whatever you do, don’t put them into an aquarium full of deep water! 

Although box turtles are primarily terrestrial, they do like to spend time wading in the water. They also will need this place to eat, hence it being a few inches deep.

Unfortunately, this is also the place they track dirt and defecate inside, so you’ll have to be on top of it in terms of keeping it clean.

I’ve seen some box turtle water trays that have deep ends in them so that they can be totally submerged. I actually quite like these, but I don’t think they are necessary.

Can A Box Turtle Swim In Tap Water?

Because your box turtle isn’t going to need a whole lot of water, at first glance you’re probably going to be tempted to just fill up his drinking or multi-use water bowl with plain tap water.

I want to make a quick case of why you shouldn’t, and why you should instead use distilled water.

Firstly, regular faucet water often contains fluoride and other additives, and while these chemicals are not harmful to humans (nor animals), it does have a tendency to make your turtle’s shell appear chalky white.

I’ve had this happen with turtles in the past, who after sitting long periods of time in sitting tap water and then drying out, had their shells caked in a chalky, white dust.

This isn’t harmful to your turtle (as far as I know), but it looks terrible.

Secondly, I think it’s just more natural.

In their native environments, turtles swim in, live in, eat and sleep in ponds, creeks, lakes and, ponds. And while no doubt this water isn’t distilled or purified, it also isn’t filled with fluoride and other additives. As your box turtle won’t be using a lot of water, getting a few bottles of distilled water a week won’t hurt financially, and will certainly only help your turtle’s health and appearance.

Summary

  • Box turtles do and can swim, but generally in shallower areas, or in order to traverse deeper rivers or lakes to get from point A to point B
  • Although they can swim, they aren’t particularly good at it, due to their lack of webbed feet
  • Don’t put a box turtle into an aquarium full of water, instead, give them a bowl or a container filled with a few inches of water
  • Use distilled or purified water if you can

About the Author

Hi, I'm J and I'm the chelonian-obsessed creator of this website. Feel free to leave a comment below, as unlike a snapping turtle, I promise I won't bite!

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