Ornate Box Turtles: Ultimate Guide

Found across the Great Plains of North America, the Ornate Box Turtle is an intriguing species. The beautiful shell holds a solitary creature, one that prefers to spend its time underground instead of in the water.

Learning about Ornate Box Turtles is the best way to care for them – and there’s a lot to learn. From diet to humidity, the Ornate Box Turtle has some very specific needs.

If you’re thinking of an Ornate Box Turtle as a pet, then you need to be prepared for the unique environment they require. In this guide, we cover everything you need to know about this curious turtle.

Male vs Female

Sexing the Ornate Box Turtle is slightly more difficult than other species of Box Turtle. One possible way to tell is size – females are generally larger than males. However, diet and age plays a major factor in size, so it can’t be relied upon. The eyes are a good identifier. Males have red eyes, but the eyes of the females are yellowish-brown.

Males also have longer and thicker tails. Perhaps the best identifier is the back claws. Males have enlarged and curved claws on their hind feet, used during mating.


The Ornate Box Turtle, or Terrapene Ornata Ornata, can be identified by the domed upper shell. This shell, or carapace, is generally a chocolate brown color. There is often a yellow stripe down the middle of the shell, surrounded by a starburst pattern of yellow lines.

The Ornate Box Turtle is a small species, at only 4 to 6 inches long. The bodies are a mottled brown, with orange and red markings across the limbs and head.

As a Pet

Ornate Box Turtles are a popular choice for a pet, but they aren’t recommended for beginners. For a small turtle, they have some big needs to be met. The Ornate Box Turtle will need a surprisingly large enclosure – at least 16 feet square.

Outside is best, so they can absorb UVB rays needed for metabolizing calcium. They don’t enjoy much handling, and they aren’t particularly playful, meaning they don’t make a good pet for curious children.


The average Ornate Box Turtle has an expected lifespan of 32 to 37 years. This is with proper care, and the correct habitat. Poor handling can reduce the life of an Ornate Box Turtle drastically.


Ornate Box Turtles have a few adaptations that make them suited for their lifestyle on the Great Plains. They have little in the way of protection other than their hard shell, which the turtle can retreat into completely when threatened. They bask in the rays of the sun to help kill parasites. Their fantastic sense of smell allows them to identify predators and prey.

To aid with digging, they have sharp claws on their hind legs. They dig to look for food, and to burrow in moist soil.

Breeding Season

The breeding season of the Ornate Box Turtle is April to July. Both sexes engage in polygynandry – mating with multiple partners. The female will store the sperm for fertilization. They lay one or two clutches a year.


After a gestation period of roughly 50 days, the female Ornate Box Turtle will lay a clutch of 2-4 eggs in a nest built into the sandy soil. This is covered by a layer of vegetation or rocks, and is difficult to spot. Infertile eggs are laid haphazardly.

Having laid her clutch, the female will then leave, and won’t return. It takes between 50 and 90 days for the eggs to incubate. Many young die not long after hatching.

Growth Rate

The average Ornate Box Turtle will be 4 to 6 inches when fully grown. When very young, the Ornate Box Turtle will grow quickly. Every year, it will grow by roughly an inch. As the turtle ages, the rate of growth slows. By the time an Ornate Box Turtle is 10 to 13 years old, it will be fully sized. The shell continues to grow very slowly across the turtle’s life span.

Life Cycle

After a clutch of eggs has been laid, it will take the Ornate Box Turtle around 50 days to hatch. At this point, they go off completely on their own. The Ornate Box Turtle lives a solitary life.

A female reaches sexual maturity at around 8 years old, and a male at about 5 years. They breed once or twice a year, and then go their separate ways. An Ornate Box Turtle stops growing at around 10 years old. In the wild, they can live for up to 37 years.


There’s some uncertainty about the exact population of Ornate Box Turtles in the wild. However, the number is definitely in decline. Ornate Box Turtles are listed as “Near Threatened”. While natural predators are a concern, the main reason is a decline in suitable habitat due to human involvement.


The Ornate Box Turtle is omnivorous, and an opportunistic eater. It will happily eat whatever it can find, which means there isn’t much competition for food. They do need lots of meaty food, and commonly eat earthworms, grasshoppers, beetles, and slugs. They’ll also eat plants and fruits, such as mulberries, dandelion, and prickly pear cactus.

An adult Ornate Box Turtle will eat twice as much meat compared to plants or fruits. Young turtles consume more insects than adults.


There are limited means of defense for the Ornate Box Turtle, making them particularly vulnerable to predators. Opossums, coyotes, raccoons, skunks, and snakes all pose a threat. Birds such as crows, raptors, and ravens can also prey on the turtle.

In areas with a human presence, domesticated cats and dogs have been known to attack turtles. Juvenile Ornate Box Turtles are even in danger from other turtles.

Roaming Range

The roaming range of the Ornate Box Turtle is fairly small, particularly when compared with other turtles. An adult may only have a range of 0.5 hectares, and juveniles only 0.015 hectares.

They show a tendency to return to the same habitat year after year. The range does depend on just how much food is available. With a plentiful food source, the Ornate Box Turtle won’t travel very far. However, when food is scarce, they’ve been shown to have a range of up to 36 hectares.


Diseases and parasites are a real risk to the Ornate Box Turtle. They can be sensitive to changes in habitat, which can cause problems. Metabolic diseases, respiratory problems, and shell diseases can be caused by a lack of nutrients. They’re also at risk of parasites, and bathe in sunlight to try and kill parasitic invaders.

Eye Color

The Ornate Box Turtle has a different eye color depending on the sex. Males have red eyes, but a female will have yellowish brown eyes.


Ornate Box Turtles choose to hibernate to protect themselves against the harsh winter conditions. Typically, they’ll hibernate from mid-October, and stay in the burrow for 3 to 4 months. Ornate Box Turtles are observed to enter the burrows at the same time, and emerge within a week or two of each other. Ornate Box Turtles will often return to the same burrow to hibernate.

Can they swim?

Unlike other turtles, the Ornate Box Turtle doesn’t enjoy the water. However, it can swim if necessary. Fat deposits under the legs help them to float, which gives them that boost in the water. Ornate Box Turtles are completely terrestrial, and one would only find itself in the water by accident.


Caring for an Ornate Box Turtle is a difficult process. They require large enclosures, preferably outdoors. They need a mixture of sun and shade. It’s vital they have access to semi-deep substrate, so they can burrow to protect from the heat and retain moisture.

Although they don’t need much humidity, misting is still required to stop them from drying out. An Ornate Box Turtle requires a temperature of 80-90F in the day, 70-80F in the night, and access to regular UVB light.

Their diet has to be heavy on meat, and they don’t enjoy much handling. Wild caught Ornate Box Turtles often die young due to stress. They’re fascinating creatures, but not ideal pets.


The Ornate Box Turtle is not cheap – expect to pay several hundred dollars for one. On top of this, the specific environment they require is another expense. Finally, you may struggle to find one for sale. In some states, catching wild Ornate Box Turtles is banned, due to decreasing numbers. 

Fun Facts

  • The Ornate box turtle is the official state reptile of Kansas. 
  • They can tuck their entire body into the shell, which is what gives them the “box” appearance.
  • This is a fully terrestrial turtle, and the only fully terrestrial turtle in Iowa – that means they spend all their time on land.
  • A solitary species, the Ornate Box Turtle spends almost no time around others. In fact, even mothers leave the eggs as soon as they’re laid.