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Ornate Box Turtle Care Guide

Let’s say you’re thinking of getting an ornate box turtle as a pet, or you simply want to know all about these interesting reptiles. Discover the world of box turtle species, including the Eastern box turtles and American box turtles, and learn the best way to ensure their good health.

The ornate box turtle is one of two species of terrestrial turtles, the other species is the desert box turtle. Their basic information follows:

Ornate Box Turtle Stats

  • Ornate Box Turtle Scientific name: Terrapene ornata luteola
  • Common name: Ornate box turtle
  • Alternate name: Western box turtle, plains box turtle
  • Family:  Emydidae
  • Average size: 5 to 7 inches long
  • Average weight: 1 to 2 pounds
  • Diet: Omnivore
  • Lifespan: 30 to 60 years

What Does the Ornate Box Turtle Look Like?

Young Ornate Box Turtle in sand and grass taken by Peter Paplanus
Young Ornate Box Turtle in sand and grass taken by – Peter Paplanus

Ornate box turtles, a captivating North American species, have a domed upper shell or carapace similar to other American box turtles. The main color is dark brown, or reddish brown, and has yellow markings on their scutes. The scutes are the separate plates that make up the turtle’s shell.

The ornate box turtle often has a yellowish stripe running down the center of the upper shell. The turtle itself varies in shades of green or brown, with yellow spots on their legs and yellow upper and lower jaws.

Box turtles are so named because they have a lower “hinge” on the bottom shell. This part of the shell is also called the plastron. The hinge can move upward and close tightly when they pull in their head and limbs.

This adaptation often helps protect them from predators. Though large predators, cars, and some dogs can crack the turtle’s shell.

Desert box turtles are similar to ornate box turtles in appearance, except the desert box turtle typically is lighter and more yellowish. The lighter coloration helps with their hot, arid environment.

Desert box turtles also have two different colorations. One type, which is less common, has no stripe patterns on its shell. This type tends to be paler yellow, and greener.

The patterned desert box turtle has yellow lines and patterns on a light brown carapace.

Ornate box turtles are small turtles. They only grow to about 4 to 6” long, and weigh between 0.5 to 2 pounds. The females of the group tend to get bigger than the males.

How to Distinguish Male or Female Ornate Box Turtles

Male ornate box turtle with red eyes in New Mexico by J.N. Stuart
Male ornate box turtle with red eyes in New Mexico by J.N. Stuart
Female Ornate box turtle with yellow eyes retracted in shell partially by Andrew DuBois
Female Ornate box turtle with yellow eyes retracted in shell partially by Andrew DuBois

One of the easiest ways to differentiate male or female plains box turtles is by looking into their eyes. Males have a fire in their eyes…actually, their irises are red, while females have yellowish-brown irises.

Females are also bigger than males, but if they are of different ages this could be a difficult way to distinguish gender.

Another way to tell is to look at their tails, males’ tails are thicker than females, and the cloaca is farther back on a male’s tail. Say all that three times fast!

Male ornate box turtles also have an enlarged, curved, inner claw on their back legs.

Where Are Ornate Box Turtles Found in the Wild?

The ornate box turtle is also called the plains box turtle because they were first discovered in Nebraska. Now their range includes the Great Plains area and from Wisconsin down to Louisiana.

Their natural range extends across open woodlands and sandy soil areas, much like their counterparts, the Eastern box turtles. While they don’t typically spend much time in the water, moisture is essential to the ornate box turtle. They like a somewhat humid environment and need soft, moist ground to lay their eggs.

Soft soil is essential to ornate box turtles as they will dig into the ground or cover themselves with damp leaves to protect from the hot sun, in order to avoid dehydration. During the cold, winters on the Great Plains, ornate box turtles will burrow into the ground and hibernate.

Ornate Box Turtle Facts

Ornate Box Turtle (Terrapene ornata) in red sand in Eddy County, New Mexico, USA
An Ornate Box Turtle (Terrapene ornata) in red sand in Eddy County, New Mexico, United States. – Source

A turtle’s shell is permanently attached to the animal. Cartoons showing a turtle being able to slip out of its shell are false. When a turtle’s shell is damaged or cracked, it can cause extreme pain, just like when we break a bone.

A cracked shell can also cause infection, turtle death, or permanent disfigurement, so be very careful when handling them.

Did you know, a turtle can feel through its shell? It’s made up of the same material as our nails and hair and they can feel through it.

Kansas’ state reptile is the ornate box turtle.

What Do Ornate Box Turtles Eat?

Western box turtles aren’t picky when it comes to finding food, they are omnivores that will eat whatever is available to them. They don’t have a problem eating insects, worms, caterpillars, fish, amphibians, or carrion if it’s available.

They will also eat grasses, vegetation, berries, and eggs. Some have even been known to eat eggs from other western box turtles. They are very opportunistic feeders.

Do Ornate Box Turtles Have Any Predators?

Two common ravens perched on a snowy branch

When the plains box turtle reaches maturity, the biggest threat to their well-being is humans. More plains box turtles die from trying to cross the road than they do from natural causes.

They do have several predators as well, especially when they are very young, and their shells are still soft and pliable.

Crows and ravens, cats, dogs, opossums, snakes, skunks, and raccoons are all predators of the ornate box turtle, especially when they are very small. As they get older, their shell offers some protection against most of these threats.

How Big are Ornate Box Turtle Eggs?

Since these turtles don’t get very large themselves, their eggs are going to be much smaller. Some eggs are more rounded, while others can be elongated, to make the appear larger.

The average ornate box turtle size of these eggs is between 0.75 of an inch to 1.5 inches. That’s about the size of a quarter or half a dollar.

Females will lay 3 to 8 eggs in a clutch a few times a year. Under typical outdoor conditions, the eggs will incubate for about 70 days.

Males and females are based on the temperature during incubation. Hotter temperatures tend to produce more females.

Babies Take Their Time Coming Out

When ornate box turtles emerge from their eggs, they may stay hidden in the shell for up to three days. During this time, they are absorbing the rest of the yolk that is attached to their bellies.

Baby turtles that come out of the shell or are forced out too soon can rupture the vital yolk. If that happens, the baby turtle isn’t able to get that needed nutrition, and may be fatal.

How Long Do Ornate Box Turtles Live?

Ornate Box Turtle (Terrapene ornata ornata) in rocky sand somewhere near Vetal, South Dakota, USA
An Ornate Box Turtle (Terrapene ornata ornata) in rocky sand somewhere near Vetal, South Dakota, USA. – Source

In the wild, their average ornate box turtle lifespan is around 25 years. But if these turtles are bred and raised in captivity, they often live between 30 to 60 years.

While an ornate box turtle will seldom live to 60, even with perfect care, they will routinely live between 35 to 37 years as a well-cared-for pet.

On the other hand, a wild box turtle taken from the wild and kept as a pet will not live very long. Taking a turtle from the wild and putting them in an enclosure stresses them out a lot and drastically shortens its lifespan.

For this reason—and because they are protected in many states—you should never take a wild turtle from its original habitat and keep it as a pet. They won’t live long, even with perfect care.

How Can You Tell the Age of an Ornate Box Turtle?

Many of us have been told you can count the age of a turtle by counting the “growth rings” on the scutes. This is similar to counting the rings of a tree, but it’s not very accurate.

Depending on the age, the environment, food, and water availability, if the turtle hibernated, and other factors determine the growth of the rings. Some rings can even be worn down if friction has been applied.

Counting rings is by no means accurate, but it can give an approximation. If you are able to see and count all the rings, divide them by two, and you will get an estimated age of the turtle.

Another, slightly more accurate way to tell a turtle’s age is to measure the shell from front to back.

1.25 to 4 inches1 to 5 years old
4 to 4.8 inches5 to 10 years old
4.8 to 6 inches10 years and up

Are Ornate Box Turtles Endangered?

The ornate box turtles are considered threatened or near threatened and are protected in several states where they are native species. These states include Colorado, Wisconsin, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, and Indiana.

Ornate box turtles don’t produce many offspring and take up to ten years before they reach sexual maturity. They are solitary animals that don’t come across each other very often leading to low birthrates among the species.

Another reason they are threatened is because of high predation rates and high mortality among the young.

Extreme temperatures can cause a decline in their population as well. Turtle sex is determined by the environment. Years of high temperatures can cause a surplus of female turtles, leading to what’s called a genetic bottleneck.

This bottleneck leads to an increased risk of inbreeding and higher mortality rates, further shrinking the population.

But the largest influence on the ornate box turtle’s survival is human impact. Habitat destruction, poaching, and roads are the biggest factors threatening the ornate box turtle’s survival.

If you are looking for an ornate box turtle as a pet, please only seek out reputable breeders instead of capturing wild turtles. Turtles born in the wild don’t make good pets as they often fall to illness or stress and don’t live very long after being removed from their habitat.

On the flip side of that, don’t release a captive-bred turtle into the wild. People often do this with the best intentions, but it can be detrimental to the pet and wild populations.

Pets often don’t know how to fend for themselves when left alone in the wild. They are used to having their food brought to them and don’t know how to find it on their own. They may not know how to find proper shelter, and many have never seen a predator before.

Captive-bred animals can introduce illnesses to the wild populations that can quickly spread and wipe out whole populations. It’s best to find another caretaker or an adoption program to take pets that can’t be cared for.

How to Care for Ornate Box Turtles

When considering the proper care of ornate box turtles, it’s important to understand their unique needs. Unlike captive box turtles, which may adapt to various environments, ornate box turtles thrive in settings that mimic their natural habitat, featuring elements like moist soil, leafy greens, and direct sunlight.

These box turtles need outdoor habitats for their healthiest, longest lives. Box turtles kept indoors full-time often develop health problems and respiratory issues.

They need some space to run around and explore, and more importantly, they need plenty of natural sunlight, so they don’t develop bone disease.

Healthy box turtles will also hibernate or should be encouraged to do so when the temperatures start to take a dive. Since this can be a challenging process, along with the need for an outdoor enclosure, these animals are not great for beginner turtle owners or children.

What Kind of Enclosure Do Ornate Box Turtles Need?

Ornate boxes are active reptiles that like to move around and explore their surroundings. Even though they don’t get very large, ornate box turtles still need space.

The very minimum space it will require is a 4’ by 4’ square. This space should include a basking area with a light source, such as a UVB lighting setup or a mercury vapor bulb, to maintain their body temperature.

The enclosure needs to be boxed in so the turtle can’t see out and should be at least 18” tall. Turtles can climb reasonably well, and if they see something they want outside of their habitat, they can spend a lot of time and energy trying to get to it.

They will need both a sunny spot they can bask in the sun’s rays and a shady area to cool themselves off. Ornate box turtles like to hide out under bushes to hide from predators and stay cool, so some shrubs are recommended.

Adding hiding places under logs or planks is also ideal for ornate box turtles. The soil or substrate needs to be loose and thick enough for them to burrow and dig.

Depending on predators in your area, you may need to build a cover for your turtle’s enclosure. Foxes, coyotes, raccoons, and some hawks will prey on turtles. A dome or covering of chicken wire or hardware cloth will protect your pet from most predators.

Substrate Needed for Ornate Box Turtles

Peat moss for an ornate box turtle enclosure
Peat moss for an ornate box turtle enclosure being held in two hands

For the substrate, consider a mix of sandy soil and leafy matter like Swiss chard or romaine lettuce, which not only aids in burrowing but also reflects their diet in the wild. A 6” layer of peat moss, sphagnum moss, or a 1-to-1 mixture of loose soil and peat moss will accomplish this.

Avoid gravel and sand as these can easily be accidentally ingested, and sand isn’t good for box turtles to burrow into. They need a somewhat humid environment, and sand doesn’t hold moisture enough.

Loose leaf litter will work too. Leaves are a good choice that closely mimics their natural habitat.

Cleaning the Habitat

An outdoor habitat doesn’t need as much cleaning as an indoor enclosure, but there are still tasks that need to be tended to. Water dishes need to be replaced and cleaned daily and should be disinfected at least once a week. Use a mild bleach, soap, and water solution to disinfect then let it dry.

Remove any uneaten food daily. Scraps left behind can lure ants, flies, and larger animals to your turtle’s enclosure.

While most ants won’t pose too much of a problem for your ornate box turtle, fire ants—if you live where they do—can be fatal for your slow-moving turtle. If you see fire ants anywhere in your yard, get rid of them before setting up your turtle habitat.

The soil will need to be tilled, turned over, or replaced once in a while. Especially as leaves and moss start to break down, or the soil becomes compacted. Just stirring the soil once a month will help to keep waste down.

If you use moss, leaves, or other organic matter, it should be replaced about twice a year, or when you start to notice signs of mold.

Lighting Needs

Zoo Med ReptiSun 10.0 Mini Compact Fluorescent Lamp, 13 Watts

Providing natural or artificial light sources, such as UVB lighting or an incandescent bulb, is crucial for a healthy box turtle, particularly to facilitate proper vitamin D synthesis. If you are keeping it indoors, then you will need a high-quality UVB lamp that provides light for 12 to 14 hours a day.

For a small, non-heated UVB light, we recommend Zoo Med ReptiSun 10.0 UVB Mini Compact Fluorescent.

Proper Temperatures for Ornate Box Turtles

Ornate box turtles are most comfortable with high temperatures around 80 to 88℉ and around 70 to 75℉ at night. Supplemental heat can be added at night or when the temperatures start to dip.

Heat lamps such as OMAYKEY 100W 2 Pack Ceramic Heat Lamp with 1-pcs Digital-Thermometer work to provide extra heat when needed. The ceramic heat lamp does not produce light, so it works great during the day or night.

Heat rocks may seem like a great option, but the problem with these products is they can quickly get too hot. The direct heat from the heat rock can cause burns or harm your turtle.

Best Humidity Levels for Ornate Box Turtles

Ornate box turtles prefer to have a somewhat humid environment. Humidity levels between 40% to 50% are ideal for this turtle.

If you live in a naturally humid area, you probably won’t have to add humidity to keep your turtle healthy. But if you live in areas that are very dry, misting the enclosure can help to maintain that level of humidity.

Providing a good, soft substrate is another way to make sure the humidity levels are met. When the ornate box turtle feels it’s getting too dry, it will burrow into the moist ground.

What To Feed Ornate Box Turtles

Turtles can be messy, and clumsy eaters, so providing their meals on a shallow tray or plate will prevent them from accidentally ingesting dirt and substrate. Incorporating a diet rich in plant matter, like dandelion greens, sweet potato, and turnip greens, alongside animal protein sources such as earthworms and wax worms, is a good idea for maintaining a healthy box turtle.

Babies and juveniles need to be fed small amounts of food daily, whereas adults can be fed every other day. Be sure to provide water every day, as they often like to cool off in shallow water.

Being omnivores, ornate box turtles need a varied diet. Be sure to offer live food such as crickets, mealworms, and earthworms as well as vegetables such as kale, mustard greens, watercress, green cabbage, or bell peppers with each meal. 

When feeding worms and insects, dust them with calcium powder to ensure they are getting enough of the essential nutrient. 

You can even feed them pinky mice on occasion, but sometimes they are high in fat and should only be offered as a treat. Thawing them out can be messy, so most people forego pinkies altogether. 

Accessories for Ornate Box Turtles

Your ornate box turtle needs a few places to hide from the hot sun, this can be accomplished by planting some small, safe plants such as hostas, or collard greens. These are safe for your turtle to munch on and offer hiding places and shade.

A shallow water feature is a necessity for your ornate box turtle. It needs to be big enough for your turtle to fit lengthwise completely, but stay shallow enough so the water does not go above his head.

Box turtles like to cool off in the water when it’s hot, and they will sometimes drink from it, so provide clean, fresh water daily.

Just be sure none of these accessories are close to the walls of the enclosure. If they are high enough, the turtle could climb on them and out of the pen.


Can ornate box turtles swim?

Ornate box turtles are terrestrial turtles. These turtles can swim but not as well as aquatic turtles. If they do swim, it’s usually only to get across a small body of water.

Are ornate box turtles good pets?

Ornate box turtles have some restrictive needs and should only be kept by experienced reptile keepers. They are becoming a very popular turtle pet, and so many are showing up at rescue operations because people don’t realize what they are getting into.

Can respiratory infections be a concern for ornate box turtles?

Yes, especially for indoor ornate box turtles, maintaining clean water in a shallow water dish and ensuring the ambient temperature is regulated can help prevent respiratory infections.

How Is the Ornate Box Turtle’s Temperament?

Ornate box turtles that are not used to being handled may bite if they feel threatened. Give them plenty of space and time to get used to you before handling them much. Still, some box turtles may not like to be handled much.

Once they are used to their environment, they become much more active and will explore and slowly become used to human interaction. Give them time if they withdraw into their shell.

Male ornate box turtles can become aggressive toward each other. They may bump shells to assert dominance, or bite each other, so males shouldn’t be housed together. Male and female pairings and two females in one enclosure don’t seem to have this problem.

When housing more than one turtle in an enclosure, be sure to expand your space. They are solitary creatures in the wild and need their own area.

How Much Do Ornate Box Turtles Cost?

Ornate box turtles are becoming more popular as pets and you can sometimes find them in pet stores. Before you purchase one though, do your research and make sure the breeder is reputable and legitimate.

Responsible breeders will sell ornate box turtles between $100 to $500.

Wrapping It Up

Ornate box turtles are an interesting species of terrestrial turtles.

They can make great, very long-lasting pets, but they have a few special needs such as their need to stay outside. They also benefit from hibernation if they are healthy which requires a proper setup.

Remember, adopting ornate box turtles from a pet store or pet trade should always be done with caution. Ensure they are sourced ethically to avoid issues like health problems or supporting the capture of wild-caught turtles.


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Friday 23rd of December 2022