The Ornate Box Turtle

Ornate Box Turtle (Terrapene ornata), male, Sinton, Corpus Christi, Coastal Bend, Texas Coast, USA
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About 6 inches in length. Ornate box turtles have a domed carapace that is brown with yellow lines on the scutes (sometimes described as a starburst pattern), with no central keel. The plastron scutes have radiating yellow and brown lines. Their skin is dark gray (with white or yellow spots), and there is sometimes green on the mature male's head.

Expected Lifespan

As with other box turtles, Eastern box turtles can be very long-lived, possibly up to 100 years.

Sadly, many in captivity will not survive that long (30-40 years is more typical; even shorter with less than ideal care).

Sexing Ornate Box Turtles

Sexing ornate box turtles can be quite difficult. Sometimes the male will have a reddish iris, but this is not always the case. Unlike the Eastern box turtles, the plastron of both males and females is flat. The males do tend to have slightly longer and thicker tails than females.


Ornate box turtles are not very hardy, and do best in an outdoor enclosure (often they do not thrive indoors). They need a large enclosure with room to move around, with a high fence to keep them from climbing to escape. Provide several hiding places such as logs or planks and provide a thick layer of loose peaty soil or leaf litter to burrow into, and a shallow pan of water. If kept indoors a large enclosure should be built.


Ornate box turtles prefer temperatures around 85-88 F during the day and 70-75 F at night.

Healthy ornate box turtles can be hibernated in the winter. Make sure their enclosure does not get overheated in warmer months and make sure plenty of shade is available. A heat lamp in a shelter can provide supplemental heat for cooler days.

Humidity Needs

Though they come from generally dry areas, they create a humid microenvironment for themselves by burrowing.

It is essential for this species to be able to burrow into a layer of loose soil (peat/soil mix combined with sphagnum can be used) or leaf litter (minimum 3-4 inches deep). Regular misting or sprinkling of the enclosure is recommended along with having a pan of water always available.


Like other box turtles, ornate box turtles are carnivorous when young and omnivorous when adults, although they retain more carnivorous tendencies than other box turtles. Calcium-dusted crickets, mealworms, waxworms and earthworms along with pinky mice should be fed. Grasses, dark leafy greens, and some vegetables and fruits can also be given. Some turtles are nervous about eating in the open so feed in a sheltered area.


Natural Habitat: Ornate box turtles are native to the central United States, found from the Gulf Coast states up north to South Dakota and Illinois. They live in deserts and natural grasslands, often in areas with little water.

Caution: Ornate box turtles are not hardy and are not suitable for beginners. They have very specific needs, are very sensitive to stress and are difficult to keep in captivity. The wild capture of ornate box turtles for the pet trade has caused the untimely death of many of these easily stressed and delicate turtles, so if you are determined to keep an ornate box turtle, please seek out a captive bred specimen and do not support the capture of wild turtles for the pet trade.

Additionally, box turtle populations are declining (listed by CITES as threatened, and import/export permits are necessary). Many states protect box turtle populations and have laws against collecting box turtles from the wild. It is best to get a pet box turtle bred in captivity from a reputable breeder. Wild caught turtles do not adjust well to captivity and many die from the stress. Pet stores often carry ​wild-caught turtles, so be careful.