Want to set up an indoor box turtle enclosure? Chances are you’re going to make a mistake. Don’t worry though! I’ll teach you how to avoid it.
One of the biggest mistakes I ever made when I began my journey as a pet turtle owner was putting my box turtle into a crazy-inappropriate environment. Thinking about it still makes me embarrassed.
I had read that turtles should be housed in an aquarium or habitat with a lot of water. So, I filled a tank with water, connected a filter, installed a basking spot and UV-light and put my new box turtle (named Zhuang Zhuang) into the water.
At the time, I had no idea that box turtles and aquatic species of turtles such as red-eared sliders require VERY different habitats.
I don’t want you to make the same mistake I did. So, in this short article I will teach you how to set up an indoor box turtle enclosure as easy, efficient and simple as possible. Let’s get to it!
What Kind of Indoor Habitat Does a Box Turtle Need?
If you plan on keeping your turtle indoors, your goal should be very simple:
To create a habitat that mirrors the conditions and environment your turtle would live in were it in the wild (minus the predators of course!).
If your indoor habitat can generally reflect your box turtle’s outdoor environment, you greatly increase the chances that it will live a long, healthy life.
So, what kind of habitat do box turtles live in? Let’s look at the environments of four popular box turtle species: the Eastern, Gulf Coast, Western Ornate and 3-toed box turtle.
Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina)
These turtles live in forested areas of the Eastern United States. They often can be found in, under or around logs, leaf litter, bushes and other types of vegetation. They like to soak in shallow ponds, rivers and streams from time to time.
Gulf Coast Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina major)
As its name implies, the Gulf Coast box turtle lives in the Gulf Coast region of the United States (Louisiana, Florida, Texas, etc.) They can be found in marshes, forests and scrub areas.
Three-toed Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina triunguis)
The three-toed box turtle’s habitat generally overlaps that of the Gulf Coast box turtle. And like that turtle, they can be found in meadows and wooded areas moving under, in and around moist leaves, shrubs and vegetation. Like the Eastern box turtle they enjoy a soak every now and again.
Western Ornate Box Turtle (Terrapene ornata ornata)
Unlike the other species, the Western Ornate box turtle lives in the middle chunk of the United States. However, like the other species, it can be found in woodlands and forested areas scouring for beetles, bugs, slugs and other insects among piles of leaves and bushes.
Noticed any similarities?
For most box turtle species, try to provide a mostly land-based habitat chock-full of moist leaves or small plants with a smaller area to soak or drink water.
What Do You Need For a Box Turtle Habitat?
Now that we know what type of environment we should provide for our box turtle, the next step is gathering everything we need.
Basically, you’ll need all of the following:
- A large tank, aquarium or terrarium to house everything. A glass aquarium is totally fine. It has drawbacks but one thing it does do really well is maintain moisture and humidity. In more open terrariums or habitats, this can sometimes be a struggle.
- Substrate. This is basically what your turtle will live and move around on. There are lots of great substrate combinations. A basic one is to combine coconut fiber and organic soil and cover it with sphagnum moss or bark. For more information on substrates, check out this article I wrote.
- Plants. Strawberry plants, alfalfa and clover are all often used in box turtle enclosures. You’ll have to be careful here because certain types of plants are poisonous to box turtles. You’ll need to avoid rhubarb, potato, tobacco, tomato leaves and ivy. Before deciding on what plants you would like to add, check out this link and make sure its not on the poisonous plants list.
- Hiding spots. Plants are used for shelter and protection but its always a good idea to make your enclosure as diverse as you can. Logs are a good option here.
- Lighting. You’ll need a UV-B producing light-bulb. This basically replaces the sunshine. Turtles need UV-B in order to stay healthy. For more information on UV-B and turtles, check out this article I wrote.
- A water cup, container or area. Although box turtles are primarily land-based creatures, they do require water. Some species more than others. The minimum would be a simple water cup or tray that the turtle can drink or walk into. An even better option is a bigger area filled with a few inches of water to allow for soaking.
- A hygrometer (humidity gauge) and thermometer. Don’t skip out on these. Different species require different temperature and humidity levels. If your enclosure’s temperature and humidity is too cold, hot, moist or dry it could negatively affect your turtle’s health and longevity.
What Size Tank Does a Box Turtle Need?
A word on tank size. Follow this rule as best as possible:
Get the biggest tank or aquarium you can.
This holds true not only for box but also aquatic turtles like red-eared and yellow-bellied sliders.
For outdoor box turtle enclosures, the standard minimum recommended guideline is 4 feet in length by 4 feet in width. Depth should be several inches at the very least.
Now, this is usually impractical for most indoor enclosures. Indoors, a 4×4 habitat would take up a ton of space in most peoples’ homes.
For indoor enclosures, the standard minimum recommended guideline is is 3 feet in length and 1 foot in width.
I know a 3×1 aquarium or habitat is fairly big for many people so just try to get as close as you can to that number.
A big reason box turtles require such large aquariums or enclosures is due to their terrestrial-nature. In a water-filled aquarium, a slider can swim horizontally, vertically and side-to-side. The fact that it can swim in three dimensions makes its space much bigger.
Because box turtles live mostly on land, they are generally limited to moving horizontally and side-to-side. To make up for this, you’ll need a bigger enclosure.
How Do You Set Up an Indoor Box Turtle Enclosure?
Once you’ve got all you need, in particular:
- Large tank or enclosure
- Logs or other things for hiding spots.
- Water cup, tray or area.
- Thermometer and hygrometer (this measures humidity)
Then you can start setting up your box turtle enclosure.
Generally, you can decorate or divide your aquarium or enclosure any number of ways, but to begin with, its best to start as follows:
- Give your aquarium, terrarium or enclosure a good cleaning. I simply use a bleach-water solution and then air-dry it. Don’t skip this step. It may seem unimportant but illnesses and infections can possibly occur from the chemicals or products still on your tank when it was bought.
- Add your substrate. If you’ve got a mixture, add both and combine. Some good substrate combinations are coconut fiber + organic soil and/or cypress mulch. Adding a moss on top, such as sphagnum or peat is also a great idea as it will really make your base look and feel more natural. You’ll want your substrate more “hard” than “loose”. This is why I suggest adding soil and packing it in. If your substrate is too loose, your turtle will constantly track it into the water. It will also be difficult for plants to thrive and your turtle will constantly be moving it everywhere.
- Add lighting, plants, hiding spots and water!
Now, before you add all of that you’ll need to think how to divide and decorate your enclosure. In particular, consider the following:
- Try to make a “hot” and “cool” end or side in your enclosure. The “hot” side should contain your box turtle’s basking spot and UV-B lighting. The “cold” side should contain no lighting and be at the lower end of your turtle’s ideal habitat temperature range.
- Keep the water away from the lighting. If it’s too close, you can actually heat up your water a bit too much.
- Attach your thermometer and hygrometer at the cool end. You’ll need to watch your enclosure’s heat and moisture. Installing these at the cool end will help you get more accurate readings.
- Make sure your box turtle has as many hiding spots as possible. The more, the better.
- Allow your turtle easy access to shallow water.
And that’s basically how to setup an indoor box turtle enclosure! As long as you can follow these general guidelines in your enclosure, your turtle’s chances of having a long, healthy life increase dramatically!
- When you set up an indoor box turtle enclosure, try to mimic its natural environment as much as possible. That means lots of substrate, lots of plants and objects to hide under and an area to drink or sit in water.
- Try to get or create the biggest aquarium or enclosure you can.
- In order to provide a satisfactory environment for your box turtle, the minimum you’ll need is an aquarium, terrarium or enclosure, substrate, plants, hiding places, lighting, a tray, dish or area for water and a thermometer and hygrometer to watch heat and moisture levels.