Ornate Box Turtle

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Species group:

Scientific name: Terrapene ornata

The basics:
To be termed “ornate’ among such an attractive group of turtles is quite an accomplishment, but this beautiful species pulls it off easily! Wild populations are protected, but captive-born animals are readily available, and make long-lived, responsive pets.

The Ornate Box Turtle ranges from the Illinois to Wisconsin and south through Texas and Louisiana to Chihuahua and Sonora, Mexico

Ornate Box Turtles are largely terrestrial, but frequently enter shallow water.

It occurs in open woodlands, overgrown fields, marshy areas, farm fringes, and suburban woodlots.

Appearance / health:
The high-domed carapace is dark to reddish brown in color and sports radiating yellow lines on each scute. The plastron bears 2 hinges that allow it to be closed tightly when the head and legs are withdrawn. Adults average 14 cm (5.6 inches) in length.

Well-cared-for Ornate Box Turtles are quite hardy, with captive longevities exceeding 50 years. Metabolic bone disease is common in animals that are not provided with ample calcium and/or UVB exposure. Ear abscesses are common in overly-dry captive habitats. Other potential problems to be aware of include swollen eyes (Vitamin A deficiency), overgrown jaws, and obesity.

Behavior / temperament:
Ornate Box Turtles take very well to captivity and quickly learn to “beg’ for food when their owners appear. They are very alert, exhibit a surprising degree of curiosity. Like most turtles, they dislike being handled and carried about.

Box Turtles are quite active and need spacious enclosures. Glass aquariums are unsuitable. Adults require “tortoise style” commercial enclosures, cattle troughs or plastic-based rabbit cages measuring at least 1.2 x 1.2 meters (4 x 4 feet), but preferably larger; outdoor maintenance is ideal. A pool of water large enough for soaking must be available.

The ideal substrate is a mix of slightly-moist topsoil, peat, and sphagnum moss, topped by dead leaves, of a depth that allows the turtle to bury itself.

Ornate Box Turtles require exposure to UVB light. Temperatures should range from 70-80 F, with a basking site of 85-88 F. Provide your turtle with the largest home possible, so that a thermal gradient (areas of different temperatures) can be established.

Females and youngsters often co-exist, but must be watched carefully. Males fight viciously, and usually harass females with near-constant mating attempts.

Young Box Turtles are largely carnivorous and should be fed a diet comprised of earthworms, snails, slugs, pre-killed pink mice (used sparingly), roaches, sow bugs, beetle grubs, and crickets. Commercial box turtle diets can be offered on occasion, but are not suitable as a mainstay.

Adults should be provided the same food as juveniles, but approximately 50% of the diet should be comprised of chopped berries, kale, dandelion, yams, apples, pears, squash, mushrooms, carrots and other produce.

Most meals provided to growing animals should be powdered with a calcium source. Vitamin/mineral supplements should be used 2-3 times each week. Both can be reduced to once weekly for well-nourished adults. A cuttlebone may be left in the terrarium for “as needed” use.

Males may be distinguished their red eyes (vs the brown/orange of females), thicker tails, and deeply-concave plastrons. Breeding may occur year-round, or be stimulated by a hibernation period of 2-3 months at 38-42 F.

Gravid (egg-bearing) females, which often become restless, should be removed to a large container (i.e. 5x the length and width of the turtle) provisioned with moist soil and sand. Gravid females that do not nest should be seen by a veterinarian as egg retention invariably leads to a fatal infection. The 1-8 eggs may be incubated in a mix of 1 part vermiculite to 1 part water (by weight) at 75-82 F for 60-90 days.

Written by Frank Indiviglio

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