Ornate Box Turtle

These perky turtles do best in outdoor cages

Ornate Box Turtle (Terrapene ornata), male, Sinton, Corpus Christi, Coastal Bend, Texas Coast, USA
Bill Draker/imageBROKER/Getty Images

Ornate box turtles are one of two varieties of terrestrial turtles that are native to the central United States. They have a domed carapace that is brown with yellow lines on the scutes (sometimes described as a starburst pattern), with no central keel.

The plastron scutes have radiating yellow and brown lines. Their skin is dark gray with white or yellow spots, and there is sometimes green on the mature male's head.

  • Names: Ornate box turtle, Terrapene ornata ornata.
  • Lifespan:  Eastern box turtles can be very long-lived, up to 100 years.
  • Size: About 6 inches. 

Ornate Box Turtles' Behavior and Temperament

Ornate box turtles are native to the central United States, found from the Gulf Coast states up north to South Dakota and Illinois. They live in deserts and natural grasslands, often in areas with little water.

Sexing ornate box turtles can be quite difficult. Sometimes the male will have a reddish iris, but this is not always the case. Unlike the Eastern box turtles, the plastron of both males and females is flat. The males do tend to have slightly longer and thicker tails than females.

Most box turtles are not good options as pets for children, but ornate box turtles are a bit perkier and more personable than their box turtle cousins. Varieties of ornate box turtles bred in captivity tend to be easier to handle than their counterparts that are caught in the wild.

 

When you bring your ornate box turtle home for the first time, be sure you give it time to get comfortable in its surroundings before handling it frequently. Stressed-out box turtles have been known to bite when feeling threatened.

As with other North American box turtles, ornate box turtles in the wild hibernate in cold weather, especially those that live farther north.

In captive box turtles, this usually manifests as burrowing.

Housing the Ornate Box Turtle

Ornate box turtles are not very hardy and do best in outdoor enclosures. They often do not thrive indoors. They need a large enclosure with room to move around, and a high fence to keep them from climbing to escape (they may be slow, but they do love to climb).

Provide several hiding places such as logs or planks in your ornate box turtle's enclosure, and provide a thick layer of loose peaty soil or leaf litter to burrow into, and a shallow pan of water. If kept indoors, a large enclosure should be built with sufficient heating and lighting.

If you do plan to keep your ornate box turtle in an outdoor enclosure, you'll want to ensure there are both shady and sunny areas available so that your turtle can spend time basking, but have a place to cool off. 

Temperature

Ornate box turtles prefer temperatures around 85 to 88 F during the day and 70 to 75 F at night. Healthy ornate box turtles can hibernate in the winter. Make sure their enclosure does not get overheated in warmer months and that plenty of shade is available. A heat lamp in a shelter can provide supplemental heat for cooler days.

Humidity

Though they come from generally dry areas, ornate box turtles create a humid micro-environment for themselves by burrowing.

It is essential for this species to be able to burrow into a layer of loose soil (a peat and soil mix combined with sphagnum also can be used) or leaf litter minimum 3 to 4 inches deep. Regular misting or sprinkling of the enclosure is recommended along with having a pan of water always available.

Food and Water

Like other box turtles, ornate box turtles are carnivorous when young and omnivorous when adults, although they retain more carnivorous tendencies than other box turtles.

Calcium-dusted crickets, mealworms, waxworms, and earthworms along with pinky mice should be regular parts of the ornate box turtle's diet. Grasses, dark leafy greens, and some vegetables and fruits can also be given. Some turtles are nervous about eating in the open, so feed in a sheltered area.

They also tend to be messy eaters, which is why some owners feed their turtles in a separate enclosure from where they spend most of their time.

You may have to weigh whether your turtle will tolerate the amount of handling required for special feeding accommodations. 

Common Health Problems 

Like most turtles, ornate box turtles are susceptible to vitamin A deficiency, respiratory infections, and parasites. 

Respiratory infections usually show symptoms such as wheezing or excess mucus around the nostrils and mouth. Repeated respiratory infections, coupled with weight loss or disorientation in your turtle, may signal a vitamin A deficiency. This ailment is usually the result of a nutrient-poor diet. Many varieties of leafy greens, such as iceberg lettuce, don't have enough nutritional value for turtles, and should not be a significant part of their regular diets.

Box turtles also are prone to shell rot, which is caused by either bacterial or fungal infection. It sometimes shows up after the turtle has suffered a shell injury, such as a cut or burn. The shell will appear cracked or dry, and there will be an odor of decay if shell rot sets in. 

Parasitic infections usually require a fecal exam by a veterinarian who specializes in reptiles. If caught early, these conditions are all treatable. Don't try to use home remedies or other methods before you've consulted your vet. 

Choosing Your Ornate Box Turtle

Ornate box turtles are not hardy and are not suitable for beginners. They have very specific needs, are very sensitive to stress. and are difficult to keep in captivity.

It's advisable to seek out a captive-bred specimen of ornate box turtle from a reputable breeder so as to avoid supporting the capture of wild turtles for the pet trade, which often results in subpar care and sick animals. 

Similar Species to Ornate Box Turtles

If you’re interested in pets similar to the ornate box turtle, you may want to check out:

If these pique your interest, you can read all of our box turtle profiles here.