Desert Box Turtle: Ultimate Guide

Male vs Female

The Desert Box Turtle, also known as the Sonoran Box Turtle is a subspecies of the very popular box turtle. Endemic to the South Western regions of the United States and Northern Mexico, it can be tricky to distinguish between the males and the females of these mainly terrestrial reptiles.

The easiest way to tell the difference is through the eyes. The male desert box turtle has red eyes while the female sports darker brown eyes. Moreover, the male desert box turtles tend to have one back toe that turns inward while the female doesn’t have this extra expenditure. Males also have thicker tails in general. 


There are some tell-tale signs to look out for when trying to identify a desert box turtle. Similar to other turtles, the desert box sports a hinged shell. This allows it to close its shell completely in order to become fully protected.

There tend to be two different types of colors on desert box turtles. One color is patterned whereas the other is unpatterned. Patterned desert box turtles have a brown to pale carapace with thin yellow lines. This is the dorsal (back) of the turtle when the shell becomes convex. This consists of the animal’s ribs that are fused with the dermal bone.

Unpatterned types have a greenish or straw-colored appearance but these tend to be less common. Unpatterned desert box turtles also have no striping on their bodies.

The body and legs of these reptiles are generally dark-colored with dashes of yellow markings and they have an average length of around 35 centimeters. 

As a Pet

Desert box turtles can make fascinating pets. Box turtles, in general, are some of the most popular and interesting reptilian pets in the United States and the desert box turtle is no different. They are enjoyable to watch and it is interesting to learn their habits.

If properly cared for, desert box turtles can live for many more years than other popular pets such as cats and dogs. The same goes for the majority of turtle species out there. If you want to keep one of these animals as a pet, you must be committed to learning about as well as caring for them. 

You should never take a turtle from the wild and make it your pet. In recent years, wild turtle populations have decreased significantly. Therefore, it is best to leave wild turtles in the wild to reproduce and add to their natural population. If a wild turtle is taken as a pet, it may not adapt to a life in captivity very well at all.

If you head to the pet store and see an adult desert box turtle or any turtle for that matter, ask the store owner where the turtle was obtained. More often than not, they were probably caught in the wild and will not live a happy life as a pet.

You can call your local humane society and see if they have any desert box turtles up for adoption. When you purchase or adopt a new turtle, keep it quarantined from other pets for several months. This is to ensure it doesn’t have a bacterial infection that could spread to another turtle or animal.


Desert box turtles do not reach adulthood until they are ten years old. With proper care and attention, some of these turtles can live for up to fifty years or even more. But, contrary to popular belief, you can not tell the age of a desert box turtle or any turtle by counting its growth rings on its shell. These rings just show the rate of growth and not the passage of time.

Some may have three or four rings at a younger age which grow quickly. After the age of twenty, most wild desert box turtles stop growing rings.


Unlike most turtles, desert box turtles (and other box turtles) can close their plastron very tightly. This allows them to completely protect their head and front legs when under threat. These reptiles have also adapted for life on land by having short legs and stout feet for walking and digging for food. This also helps them create burrows for egg laying and extra protection. 

Perhaps the most obvious morphological feature is their bony boxy shell that has scutes covering the carapace. These scutes are used to enhance the structural support of the turtle’s shell giving them their iconic sculpted appearance. Unlike other turtles (apart from various box species), the bones in the shell of desert box turtles fuse while the ribs and vertebral column are also fused to their bony shell.

Breeding Season 

Male desert box turtles are usually sexually mature by the ages of 8 – 9. However, in captivity, they have been known to breed as young as 2 years of age. Females tend to require 10 – 11 years before reaching sexual maturity with a breeding season lasting between March and May. Their nesting sites will then be chosen from May until July. Males will be sexually active from the time they come out of hibernation until September or October.


The average number of eggs in a clutch varies from 2.67 to 3.55. It has been found that multiple clutches of eggs are not produced while the variation in egg numbers corresponds to the cloaca (cavity at the end of the digestive tract) of the female.

The clutch size can also be determined by the maternal body size while egg width is determined more by the maternal mass. Pelvic width also correlates with the egg width as well as maternal body size. Egg sizes generally vary from one turtle to the next while incubation lasts several days.

Growth Rate

Most adult desert box turtles have a carapace length of around 125 – 130 mm whereas the females tend to have much longer carapaces. The average length is around 35 cm.

Life Cycle

In general, these reptiles are not adults until the age of ten. Many wild turtles will stop growing new rings on their shells once they reach twenty years old.


The population of wild turtles, including desert box turtles has dwindled in recent years. This is mainly due to habitat loss and turtles being harvested for the pet trade. However, with protection and care, it is hoped that numbers can continue to grow. Efforts are in place by land management organizations to try and restore the turtle’s population to areas specifically reserved for them. 


Desert box turtles are omnivores. They eat native vegetation around their habitats as well as insects and smaller animals. Their diest largely consists of ground-dwelling insects such as beetles, grasshoppers, and caterpillars. However, with the population of dung beetles decreasing every year, the number of desert box turtles also decreases with them. 


The most common predators that threaten desert box turtles are minks, skunks, dogs, raccoons, and rodents. Birds such as ravens and crows can also be a threat as well as snakes such as racers or cottonmouths.

Roaming Range

There is no definitive answer on how far desert box turtles roam but, in general, most box turtles will not travel further than 50 yards a day. Desert box turtles will rarely roam far from their original habitats such as arid, semi-arid grasslands, and prairies. 


If you have a pet desert box turtle, it can suffer from some of the most common conditions that other box turtles experience. These include a Vitamin A deficiency, respiratory diseases, shell infections/fractures, abscesses, and parasites. These parasites can get into a turtle’s lungs, liver, blood, and gut.

Eye Color

The male desert box turtle usually has red eyes while the female boasts darker brown eyes. This is the best way to tell the sex of the turtle.


Desert box turtles always hibernate in the winter and are completely freeze-tolerant. They can be greatly affected by the weather and air temperatures. When November rolls in, they begin to hibernate which lasts until late May or even early June. The temperatures for hibernation tend to be between 1 and 15 degrees and their hibernation site is generally within their home range.

Can they swim?

These turtles can swim but they spend most of their time on land, especially prairie dog towns where the climate is humid during the summer months. 


These are cold-blooded animals. This means they cannot heat their body through their metabolism. Therefore, they need some kind of heat when kept as a pet. Two UVB bulbs are usually enough to keep them warm. 

They should also be kept in an outside enclosure or large inside space. Desert box turtles require stimulation in their environment so a larger Rubbermaid may be a better option than a small aquarium.

Their base should be peat moss, sand, and pea gravel as well as a rock that they can enjoy climbing on. They should also have a small humid area to swim in as well as an area to rest in the shade. Also, ensure their enclosure is fully protected from predators such as dogs.


In general, buying a desert box turtle will set you back around $300 to $400. However, their size and age can be huge determining factors on their price.

Fun Facts

Desert box turtles and their box turtle cousins have been around for around 15 million years. That’s older than Grandma! 

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