This box turtle swims underwater!

Coahuilan box turtle at the El Paso Zoo


by Rick LoBello, Education Curator

The Coahuilan box turtle is one of my favorite animals at the Zoo. They are kind of hard to see in their pond next to the Reptile House, but worth the wait if you need to spend more time than usual in catching a glimpse. I think its great that we have an exhibit at the Zoo for this turtle that is similar to its habitat in the wild.

Coahuilan box turtle at the El Paso Zoo

I first heard about this turtle from my friend Harry Gordon when I worked as a park ranger at Big Bend National Park. Harry was working on a documentary about the Chihuahuan Desert and we became friends after meeting at one of my evening programs at the Chisos Basin. In the years that followed whenever he needed footage of some plant or animal, I was always ready to give him a hand.

The Coahuilan box turtle is from Cuatro Ciénegas Biosphere Reserve in Coahuila, Mexico, an endangered habitat in the Chihuahuan Desert. To the best of my knowledge it is the only box turtle anywhere in the world that swims under water. Most of the land turtles and tortoises in North America like the desert box turtle here in El Paso are land dwellers only. This endangered species spends 90% of its time in the water and is threatened because of wetland habitat loss. To learn more about its habitat and threats to its survival check out the Turtle Conservancy species highlight website.

Listen to a Marfa Public Radio podcast about the Coahuilan box turtle


To see some underwater footage of the Coahuilan box turtle in its natural habitat you can watch Where Rainbows Wait for Rain on YouTube. It is the second documentary on the Chihuahuan Desert produced by Harry L Gordon for the Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute and filmed largely in Big Bend National Park, Texas and at Cuatrociénegas in the northern state of Coahuila, Mexico. Cuatrociénegas (which means four marshes) is located a valley floor studded with white gypsum sand dunes and ringed by mountains, hundreds of springs emerge from the ground filling blue-green pools, streams and rivers. Communities of microbes build rocky freshwater reefs in the warm, mineral rich water. Fish, turtles, shrimp, clams, snails, lizards and snakes found nowhere else in the desert, or the world for that matter, thrive here. With over 70 such endemic species, it is often compared to the Galapagos Islands. The World Wildlife Fund ranks it as one of the three most “biologically outstanding” desert freshwater ecoregions in the world.

All photos by Rick LoBello

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