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Western Box Turtle

The western box turtle (Terrapene ornata) is found in North America and the northern part of Mexico. This turtle can be primarily found in southwestern and central North America, from the Rocky Mountains to the Mississippi River.

Although the western box turtle is also known as the ornate box turtle, the ornate box turtle is only one-half of the species.  

There are two subspecies of Terrapene ornata. These are the T. o. ornata (ornate box turtle, which is the nominate subspecies) and T. o. luteola (desert box turtle).

T. o. ornata is primarily found in the southwestern parts of  North America including New Mexico, Arizona, and Chihuahua, and Sonora in Mexico. T. o. luteola, on the other hand, is primarily found in central North America in Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Kansas.

Western Box Turtle Facts

  • Experience Level: Beginner
  • Family: Emydidae
  • Scientific Name: Terrapene ornata
  • Average Adult Size: 4.72 inches (120 mm), 14.03 oz (398 g)
  • Average Lifespan: 30 years in captivity, 30 – 37 years in the wild
  • Diet: Omnivorous
  • Average Price Range: $120 to $400

Physical Appearance

Ornate box turtle (terrapene ornata) by Peter Paplanus
Ornate box turtle (terrapene ornata) by Peter Paplanus

The western box turtle is a moderately sized turtle that grows to lengths of 4 to 6 inches, however, on average, they reach a length of 5 inches. Adults have an average weight of 14.03 oz (400 g), although the weight of an adult ranges from 7  to 19 oz (198 to 538 g).

This species is black in color, from its head (which has yellow spots), tail, shell to limbs. Their scutes have yellow lines around them. Additionally, they bear concentric rings that can be used to estimate their age.

T. o. ornata have fewer stripes on their body and their shells when compared to T. o. Luteola.

Compared to other box turtles, the Western box turtle has a more convex carapace.

Females are slightly larger than males.

Natural Habitat & Geographical Range

Exclusive to North America, the western box turtle’s geographic range starts from South Dakota and Wisconsin and ends in northwestern Mexico (northern parts of Sonora, Chihuahua, and Coahuila).

The two subspecies have different geographic ranges, with the desert box turtle being found in central North America in Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Kansas; and the ornate box turtle is found in the southwestern parts of  North America including New Mexico, Arizona, and Chihuahua and Sonora in Mexico.

In nature, western box turtles are found in grasslands. These turtles are also found in burrows. These burrows are a foot deep. When hibernating during winter, the burrows are even deeper and can be as deep as 6 ft depending on temperatures.

Although western box turtles are regarded as pond turtles, these chelonians are hardly found in ponds and other water bodies.


T. ornata is long-lived species just like other turtle species. In the wild, these turtles have an average lifespan of 40 years. The oldest known specimen lived for over 40 years. Pet western box turtles have an average lifespan of about 28 years.

Pet western box turtles live much longer when they are captive-bred. Wild-caught western box turtles tend to have very short lifespans. As such, it is advisable to keep only captive-bred box turtles as pets.


In the wild, T. ornata eats a wide variety of foods. Younger turtles tend to eat more insects than adults do. Foods these turtles eat include slugs, beetles, grasshoppers, earthworms, foliage, and fruits. The commonest plants they consume include prickly pear cacti, dandelion flowers. Mulberries. They also eat carrion and fish.

Pet western box turtles accept insects and vegetables.


T. ornata has several predators. When housing pet T. ornata you need to take into account the predators of this turtle. In the wild and even domestically, predators include dogs, red foxes, minks, Virginia opossums, raccoons, copperheads, crows, ravens, skunks, and coyotes. 

It is important to protect these turtles from predators such as crows, raccoons, and dogs. Even when housed indoors, these turtles must still be well-protected. 

Reproduction/Box turtles Eggs

Mating starts from April to October, gravid females can lay fertile eggs even several years after mating, up to four years. 

How many eggs does a western box turtle lay?

These turtles lay one to eight eggs and on average three eggs. The gestation period is about 50 days depending on temperatures.

The humidity level of the incubation affects the development of the hatchling. Higher moisture leads to longer carapaces. 

Also, temperatures above 29 degrees C (84.2 degrees F) are mostly female, and temperatures below 28 degrees C (82 degrees Fahrenheit) yield mostly male hatchlings.

Western  Box Turtle Care Guide

Desert Box Turtle in hay
Desert Box Turtle in hay

The western box turtle is quite easy to care for. Their moderate size makes them easy to care for and even keep indoors. These turtles don’t need a lot of space to thrive. Their other care needs are similar to other box turtles.

These turtles can be housed indoors and outdoors. It all depends on the amount of space available to you. These turtles are better kept outdoors. Outdoor housing has its advantages and disadvantages. One advantage is access to sunlight. However, you need a yard to set up the pen for the turtle.


If you live in the turtle’s geographic range, you can keep the turtle outdoors. You also need a yard.

The outdoor pen should have temperatures that are consistently above 60 F. The enclosure should have dimensions of about 4 sqft.

The walls of the pen should be about a foot high and smooth enough to prevent the turtle from climbing out. The walls should be opaque. These are several materials you can use in constructing the walls such as cinder blocks. The wall also needs to be about a foot deep.

When housed indoors, a turtle tank (aquarium or terrarium) of size 20-40 gallons can be used.


A heat lamp is the best way to provide heat. The heat lamp should be focused on a third of the turtle tank. There are several heat lamps out there, but I recommend ceramic heat lamps.

The warm end of the enclosure should have temperatures of about 88 degrees Fahrenheit, while the cool end of the enclosure should have temperatures of about 75 degrees Fahrenheit.

At night, temperatures shouldn’t fall below 70 degrees Fahrenheit.

When housed outdoors, you may still need to supplement the heat provided by the sun. Also, if temperatures fall below 60 degrees Fahrenheit at night, you will need to provide supplementary heating for the turtle’s enclosure.

Heat Lamps

As explained in the previous section, ceramic heat lamps are the way to go as these lamps can be on even through the night. The Wuhostam ceramic heat lamp should be used to provide warmth through the day and even at night.

In addition to a heat lamp, you also need a thermostat to regulate the temperatures within the enclosure. I recommend the Hagen Exo Terra ON/Off Thermostat.


T. ornata requires UVA and UVB light. These lights ensure that the reptile provides enough vitamin D3. For turtles housed outdoors, the sun should be enough. However, when the turtle is housed indoors, you need to provide UV lighting.

When housed indoors, it is not a good idea to expose the turtle tank to sunlight, as the glass panels of the aquarium can quickly overheat the interior of the enclosure.

Mercury vapor lamps can be used to provide UVA/UVB. A good example of a mercury vapor lamp is the Zoo Med Powersun Mercury Vapor bulb. These lamps produce heat and UV lighting. However, they can only be on for 9 to 12 hours a day. They need to go off in the evening to stimulate the day-night cycle. Also, when the enclosure gets too warm, you’ll need to turn them off.

A fluorescent UV lamp is the best way to go. These lamps provide more than enough UVA/UVB light for the turtle without producing any heat. The Reptisun 10.0 T5 lamp is the best UVA/UVB lamp for turtles.

The UV lamp needs to be on during the day for 9 to 12 hours. Make sure to turn off the lamp every evening. Leaving the lamp on at night stresses the turtle. If you are unable to do so, you can use a timer such as the BN-LINK 7 Day Heavy Duty Digital Programmable Timer.

Change the lamp every six months. If you are unsure of when to change the lamp you can use a UV sensor such as the ReptiZoo UV Sensor to measure the UV output and determine if the reptile is receiving enough ultraviolet light.


Substrates help keep humidity levels high which is good, as the box turtle prefers a humid environment. Relative humidity levels need to be 65 percent.

Substrates should be used for both turtle tanks and outdoor pens. You can use eco earth, coco coir, sphagnum moss, and aspen shaving.

Water & Humidity

As previously mentioned, high humidity is a good idea. One easy way to provide humidity is by providing a water bowl. This bowl should be large enough to hold the entire turtle. Additionally, the turtle should be able to easily climb into & out of the water bowl.

The water should be treated and chlorine-free. Allowing the water to sit for two days should allow the chlorine in it to dissipate. Do this before offering the water to the turtle, if the water has chlorine. You can also offer chlorine-free water such as mineral water.

For hatchlings, a fogger such as Reptifogger can be used to keep the enclosure humid enough.

Feeding the Western  Box Turtle

These turtles are omnivorous and accept a wide variety of foods. When feeding these turtles make sure to offer a wide variety of foods. You can offer them insects, leafy greens, vegetables, and fruits.

Animal foods to offer these turtles include snails, slugs, red worms, earthworms, mealworms, caterpillars, dubia roaches, crickets, grubs, and wax worms. They even accept fish and meat, although those options aren’t always the healthiest.

Greens to offer them include prickly pear cacti, collard greens, duckweed, romaine lettuce, fresh parsley, kale, waterweed, water hyacinth, arrowhead, and other edible greens.

Fruits to offer include apples, blueberries, mulberries, and apples.

You can offer them mazuri tortoise chow.

Supplement their diet with vitamin D and calcium every three to four days. The  Rep-Cal Calcium Powder with Vitamin D3 (Phosphorous-Free) is an excellent choice.

Feed these turtles greens every day, animal food every other day, and fruits once a week.

Recommended Basic Products

We have gone through several requirements for the turtle. Here is a summary of the essentials needed to get started.  

Breeding and Availability

These turtles are usually readily available although T. o. ornata specimens are easier to find. Both subspecies look very much alike and are both equally easy to keep.

They generally cost $120 to $400 depending on age and the shop.

You can visit these websites if you wish to know more about acquiring a Terrapene ornata.

These turtles breed from early spring to late summer. The incubation period is about 50 days. Females can hold onto fertile eggs for up to four years.

Health Problems

Maintaining a clean enclosure is important to the health of the turtle. Additionally, humidity levels, lighting, and heating should be on point. This ensures that the risk of health problems is minimized. Some common health problems include the following.

Metabolic bone disease – Lack of vitamin D and/or calcium can lead to metabolic bone disease. Symptoms include a disfigured shell and limbs. The shell may look lumpy or uneven. When caught early, this can be corrected by offering the turtle a balanced diet, appropriate UV lighting, and supplements. Additionally, low humidity levels can worsen the disease.

Respiratory infectionsAnother health problem common among box turtles include respiratory infections. This problem is caused by vitamin A deficiency and exacerbated by low humidity levels. Symptoms include difficulty breathing, refusal to eat, lethargy, and the presence of mucus. To prevent respiratory infections, offer the turtle a lot of leafy greens and ensure the humidity levels are optimal.

Shell rot – This is caused by inadequate heating and a dirty environment. Conditionals such as cracks, cuts, and lacerations on the shell can lead to shell rot when left untreated. Symptoms of shell rot include dryness, redness, and flaking of the shell. The shell may also smell bad or emit a discharge. Shell rot can be treated using an Antiseptic and antifungal spray.

Apart from the health concerns mentioned, you need to look out for any signs that show that the reptile is unwell. Some of these signs include lethargy, diarrhea, loss of appetite, dryness of skin or shell, weight loss, swelling of ears, abscesses, and any nasty discharge.


How big do western box turtles get?

Western box turtles aren’t among the biggest box turtles. They are moderately sized. On average, the western box turtle is 4.72 inches long and weighs about 14.03 oz or almost 400 grams. Their moderate size makes them easy to care for.

At most, the western box turtle can grow to be 6 inches long and weigh 19 oz.

What do western box turtles eat?

So what do western box turtles eat? As with other box turtles, T. ornata is an omnivorous reptile. In the wild, these turtles eat a wide variety of foods such as slugs, beetles, grasshoppers, earthworms, foliage, fruits, berries, flowers, and cacti. They also feed on carrion, fish, and even feces.

In captivity, they also accept leafy greens, berries, fruits, insects, lean meat, and fish. In addition, they also need to be fed calcium and vitamin D supplements.

Where is the western box turtle found?

There are two subspecies of T. ornata and these are T. o. ornata and T. o. luteola. These subspecies are native to different parts of North America.

T. o. ornata can be found in the southwestern parts of  North America including New Mexico, Arizona, and Chihuahua and Sonora in Mexico.

T. o. luteola is primarily found in central North America in Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Kansas.

Are western box turtles dangerous?

These turtles are very tame. They are usually quite curious and friendly for turtles. Regardless, these turtles should not be unhandled often.

These turtles aren’t dangerous and can even be cared for by children as far as there is sufficient adult supervision.

How long do western box turtles live?

As with other turtles, western box turtles can live for several decades. In the wild, these turtles can live for over 40 years. On average, they live to 30 to 37 years in the wild.

In captivity, they live for about 30 years.

Are western box turtles endangered?

The western box turtle is considered threatened according to the IUCN Red List. They are even listed as threatened in Appendix II of CITES.

The turtle faces several threats such as highway accidents and loss of habitat. Human activities such as farming lead to the death of countless specimens. Because this turtle is slow to mature, the high death rate of juveniles has negatively affected the recovery of wild populations.


The box turtle is among the more popular turtles found in North America and this includes the western box turtle. The geographic range of the western box turtle is central and southwestern North America – from the Rocky Mountains to the Mississippi River.

While this reptile is a pond turtle, they don’t require an aquatic setup. The box turtle can be kept in a turtle tank or an outdoor pen.

As with most turtles, T. ornata requires UVA/UVB lighting and heating. The temperature within the enclosure should be between 90 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and temperature above 70 degrees during the night.

Calcium and vitamin D3 supplementation is essential to the health of the western box turtle.

If you have any questions about keeping these delightful reptiles as pets, leave a comment.

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