Ornate Box Turtle: Species Profile

Characteristics, Housing, Diet, and Other Information

ornate box turtle (Terrapene ornata)

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Ornate box turtles are one of two varieties of terrestrial turtles that are native to the central United States. They have a domed upper shell that's brown with yellow lines in what's sometimes described as a starburst pattern. Their skin is dark gray with white or yellow spots, and there's sometimes green on a mature male's head. Ornate box turtles are one of the most popular turtle species to keep as pets. Thus, they’re typically easy to find at breeders and rescue organizations. They have somewhat complex housing and dietary needs. Under the right conditions, they can live for several decades. 

Species Overview

Common Name: Ornate box turtle

Scientific Name: Terrapene ornata ornata

Adult Size: 5 to 7 inches long

Life Expectancy: 40 to 60 years

Ornate Box Turtle Behavior and Temperament

Most box turtles aren't good pet options for children because they can be shy and not take well to excessive handling. 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 wild-caught counterparts. Plus, wild-caught turtles don't typically thrive in captivity and often die from the stress. 

When you bring your ornate box turtle home for the first time, be sure to give it time to get comfortable in its surroundings before handling it. Box turtles have been known to bite when they feel threatened. But once they feel comfortable, most ornate box turtles are quite active and enjoy exploring their environment.

As with other North American box turtles, ornate box turtles in the wild hibernate in cold weather, especially those that live farther north. In captivity, this usually manifests as burrowing.

Housing the Ornate Box Turtle

Ornate box turtles do best in outdoor enclosures and often develop health issues when kept solely 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.) Also, provide several hiding places, such as logs or planks, in your turtle's enclosure. And use a thick layer of loose peaty soil or leaf litter for your turtle to burrow. Plus, include a shallow pan of water for soaking and drinking.

Ensure that there are both shady and sunny areas in the enclosure, so your turtle can spend time basking but have a place to cool off. If kept indoors, a large enclosure should be built with sufficient heating and lighting.


Ornate box turtles prefer temperatures around 80 to 88 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and 70 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit at night. Make sure shade is available at all points during the day, especially during the warmer months. A heat lamp can provide supplemental heat for cooler days or indoor enclosures. Do not use a heat rock, as this can lead to burns.


Ornate box turtles need UVB lighting to metabolize calcium. If kept outside, natural sunlight meets this requirement. But indoors they’ll need a UVB lamp for their enclosure. 


Ornate box turtles like a humidity level of around 40% to 50%. In the wild, they create a humid microenvironment for themselves by burrowing in moist soil, so it is essential to provide them with a substrate layer at a minimum of 4 inches deep in their enclosure. Regular misting of the enclosure is recommended.


A common substrate, the material that lines the bottom of your turtle's enclosure, is peat-based soil (make sure it’s free of chemicals) mixed with sphagnum moss. Leaf litter also can be used. The substrate helps to mimic the animal's natural environment, as well as maintain the enclosure's humidity level. Plus, turtles like to burrow in their substrate. So if your turtle is on the larger side, provide a substrate layer that's at least 4 inches deep for it to satisfy its burrowing instincts.

Food and Water

Ornate box turtles are omnivores and require a varied diet. 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 certain vegetables and fruits can also be given. Some turtles are nervous about eating in the open, so feed them in a sheltered area. It's also ideal to place the food on a plate, paver, or other flat surface, so they don't accidentally ingest their substrate.

Some turtles tend to be messy eaters, so owners will feed them in a separate enclosure from where they spend most of their time. You'll have to weigh whether your turtle will tolerate the amount of handling required for special feeding accommodations. In general, feedings should occur every day for young turtles and every other day for adults. Consult your veterinarian for the quantity and variety of food that's best for your individual turtle.

Common Health and Behavior 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 and excess mucus around the nostrils and mouth. Repeated respiratory infections, coupled with weight loss or disorientation, can signal a vitamin A deficiency. This 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, so they should not be a significant part of their regular diet.

Box turtles also are prone to shell rot, which is caused by either a 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 before you've consulted your vet. 

Choosing Your Ornate Box Turtle

Ornate box turtles aren't hardy and thus aren't suitable for beginner turtle owners. They have very specific needs, are sensitive to stress, and are difficult to keep in captivity.

When acquiring an ornate box turtle, select a captive-bred specimen from a reputable breeder, or visit a rescue organization. This way, you avoid supporting the capture of wild turtles for the pet trade, which often results in subpar care and sick animals. Expect to pay between $100 and $400 on average. Make sure the turtle has clear eyes and no mucus around its nose or mouth. Also, its shell should feel solid, and it shouldn't have any bumps or swelling along its body.

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