The Ornate Box Turtle is a North American Box Turtle, but it
is not one of the better known Carolina Terrapins such as
the Eastern Box Turtle or the Three Toed Box Turtle.
Instead, its scientific name is Terrapene ornata ornata. It
is also known as the Desert Ornate Box Turtle, Texas Ornate
Box Turtle, and Eastern Ornate Box Turtle, depending on
where it lives. Its close relative the Desert Box Turtle is
named Terrapene ornata luteola.
As you might guess from its common names, the Ornate Box
Turtle is found over much of the central United States, and
prefers a slightly drier habitat than the Carolina
Terrapins. The Desert Box Turtle ranges from southeast
Arizona down into Mexico, and looks similar to the Ornate,
but with more striations and a slightly paler color. They
are often found in dry prairies, forest edges, and irrigated
farm areas where they can find the sandy soil they like for
burrows and for burying itself for hibernation.
The Ornate Box Turtle is so named because it and its close
relative the Desert Box Turtle are striking in looks. The
Ornate is a fairly small turtle, seldom growing large than 5
or 6 inches at maturity. Unlike the Carolina Terrapins it
has no raised keel along it's backbone, but a yellow line
instead, and it's shell is flatter. It is like its fellow
terrapenes, however, in that it has a hinged plastron that
allows it to pull in its extremities and close up shop if a
In color, its carapace and plastron (top and bottom shell)
are dark, with dramatic yellow striations and radiating
lines, top and bottom, as well as on it's face and legs. The
adult males have bright red eyes, purple tongues, brighter
head colors, and bright yellow, red or orange spots on the
front legs. Females are lighter colored, with brown eyes.
Some have said that it looks "hand painted."
This box turtle is omnivorous like the other terrapenes,
eating the types of foods found in its dryer habitat such as
beetles, grasshoppers and other insects, prickly pear cactus
and other water-bearing plants, berries, cactus fruits, and
the like. It seldom drinks in the wild, getting its water
from what it eats. You should provide daily clean water for
your captive Ornate Box Turtle, though, since it's diet will
be more limited.
Although these turtles live in drier habitats than most
turtles, they still are more active after a rain, when their
live food is more available. And because they are cold-
blooded, they spend most of the hot part of the day in
hiding in the shade.
In the fall, they begin to fatten themselves in preparation
for hibernation, and at the beginning of winter, dig a deep
burrow (3 to 5 feet deep) in a sandy spot and go to sleep,
emerging in April to begin the search for a mate.
Box turtles are long lived, often to 40 or more, but they
are not great breeders, and the smaller the wild population
grows, the harder it is for them to find a mate. (For this
reason plus the pet trade and habitat loss, most species of
turtles are at risk and should not be taken from the wild.
Buy a captive bred turtle only, from a breeder, you will get
a healthier, less stressed, easier to tame pet, and help to
preserve the species as well.)
If mating occurs, the female will dig a nest in which she
lays up to eight white eggs. She then will cover the nest so
that it is impossible to tell it is there, and 60-70 days
later, the eggs will hatch. Sometimes the babies will burrow
even deeper and stay there hibernating until the following
Your captive Ornate Box Turtle will need a large outdoor
pen, with part shade and part sun, a shallow water spot so
they don't drown, edible plantings, and a good pile of
composted leaf litter, grass clippings, etc. to burrow in.
Depending on the climate where you live, you may need to
make adjustments such as a partial cover to the pen to keep
their habitat drier if you live in a damp area, or putting
the pen in a sunnier spot if your climate is cooler. Their
habitat needs varying microclimate areas so that they can
move about adjusting their humidity and warmth as needed.
These are not the easiest turtles to keep healthy, and they
stress easily, so they are not the best choice for a turtle
beginner. They also are somewhat more aggressive than the
Carolina Box Turtles, but with careful preparation and wise
care, you should enjoy your beautiful pets for a long time.