Ornate box turtle (Terrapene ornata)

Also known as: Western box turtle
French: Tortue-boîte Ornée Commune
GenusTerrapene (1)
SizeLength: 95 – 154 mm (2)

The ornate box turtle is classified as Near Threatened (NT) on the IUCN Red List (1) and listed on Appendix II of CITES (3).

The ornate box turtle (Terrapene ornata) has a domed, round or oval carapace (upper shell) that is dark brown to reddish-brown, often with a yellow stripe running down the centre. The shell is made up of bony plates, or scutes, which are patterned with yellow lines radiating from the centre. The scutes on the lower shell (plastron) also bear this pattern (4). There are two subspecies of the ornate box turtle: Terrapene ornata ornata is generally darker in colour than Terrapene ornate luteola (also known as the desert box turtle) which has a more yellowish shell (2). The plastron is hinged and can be closed completely against the carapace, allowing the turtle to completely withdraw its head and feet and enclose them within a protective ‘box’ (2). The fairly small head of the ornate box turtle is brown to green in colour, with yellow spots and yellow jaws. The limbs and tail are dark brown, also with some yellow spotting. Male and female ornate box turtles can be distinguished by the larger size of the female and the colour of the irises; males have red eyes while those of females are yellowish-brown (4). In addition, males have a longer, thicker tails than females and bear an enlarged claw on their hindfeet that is used during mating (2).

The ornate box turtle occurs in the United States and Mexico. T. o. ornata occurs in western Indiana and eastern Wyoming, south to south-western Louisiana and eastern New Mexico. T. o. luteola ranges from Texas and south-eastern Arizona south into north-eastern Sonora and northern Chihuahua, Mexico (4).

T. o. ornata inhabits plains and gently rolling grasslands, with scattered low brush but no trees. T. o. luteola occurs in more arid habitats, in semi-desert to desert, where it favours areas with low soil temperatures, high air temperatures, and low humidity levels (4).

The ornate box turtle’s day consists of basking, foraging and resting. After emerging from their night time burrow or concealed resting place soon after dawn, the turtle will bask for a few minutes before commencing its search for food. The ornate box turtle is primarily carnivorous, consuming insects such as beetles, caterpillars, grasshoppers and even carrion, but some plant material is also eaten, such as mulberries (4), grasses, blackberries, ground cherries and prickly pears (2). It seeks shady spots to forage in and will stop foraging and seek shelter during the hottest part of the day. During summer, the turtles may spend the hot midday hours in pools of water (4).

Spring is the time of courtship and mating in the ornate box turtle. This consists of a male pursuing a female for nearly 30 minutes, nudging her shell and then hurling himself on her back. The male uses the enlarged claws on his hindfeet to grip the female. Mating in this species is known to last as long as two hours (4).

Nesting takes place between early May and mid-July, with a peak in June. The nests of the ornate box turtle are flask-shaped, five to six centimetres deep, and situated in open, well-drained areas with soft substrate (4). The size of the clutch ranges from one to eight eggs, with larger females generally laying more eggs. It has also been observed that T. o. ornata lays larger clutches than T. o. luteola. The brittle, white eggs are incubated for about 70 days. Ornate box turtle hatchlings measure around three centimetres long, and do not yet have a fully developed hinge on their plastron; this becomes functional by the age of four (4). Before this defence strategy can be used, the young box turtles may be more vulnerable to predation by raptors, crows, domestic cats and dogs, foxes, and racoons (2).

In October, ornate box turtles begin to enter hibernation, when they move into sheltered ravines and wooded areas (4). Some dig their own burrows, often after rains when the ground is softened, or they use burrows excavated by other turtles or mammals (2), and here they will remain until they emerge in March or April (4). The lifespan of ornate box turtles is at least 32 years, and may be as many as 37 years (2).

While numbers of the ornate box turtle are abundant in some areas (4), in other parts of its range this species is threatened by human activities (2). The most significant threat to this turtle is the conversion of vast areas of grassland into farms and ranches (2). The ornate box turtle seems to tolerate light grazing of livestock on their grassland habitat, but the cultivation of irrigated crops, such as corn, often results in the ornate box turtle disappearing from the area (4). Agricultural development has greatly affected many populations over the last century and continues to pose an ongoing threat to this turtle (2).

In addition to this extensive habitat conversion, the ornate box turtle is threatened by urban expansion, which has been encroaching on the turtle’s habitat in recent decades, and road construction; roadkill is a major cause of mortality for this turtle (2). The ornate box turtle has also been impacted by collection for the commercial pet trade (2) (4). This species is said to be one of the most frequently seen box turtles in the pet trade in the United States and Europe (5), despite it apparently not surviving for very long once outside of its natural range (4). Unfortunately, law enforcement is hindered by inadequate funding, a lack of personnel and the problems associated with monitoring the extensive areas where box turtles occur (2).

Although not considered globally threatened on the IUCN Red List , there are measures in place to control the detrimental effect commercial collection can have on box turtles. Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska all prohibit the commercial collection of this species, but allow some non-commercial collection. In Iowa, Indiana and Wisconsin it is protected by state law and Texas is currently considering restricting collection of box turtles (2). In addition, its listing on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) means that any international trade in this species should be carefully monitored (3).

A conservation program for the ornate box turtle currently exists in Wisconsin, where the Department of Natural Resources is attempting to restore declining populations by taking eggs from the wild and raising the young in a protected environment before returning them to the wild; relocating adults from populations in Texas, Kansas and Nebraska; and using roadside barriers and signs to reduce road deaths (2) (6).

For further information on reptile conservation: 

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:

  1. IUCN Red List (April, 2011)
  2. Redder, A.J., Dodd Jr, C.K., Keinath, D., Mcdonald, D. and Ise, T. (2006) Ornate Box Turtle (Terrapene ornata ornata): A Technical Conservation Assessment. USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Region. Available at:
  3. CITES (June, 2007)
  4. Ernst, C.H., Altenburg, R.G.M. and Barbour, R.W. (1997) Turtles of the World. ETI Information Systems Ltd, Netherlands.
  5. Bartlett, R.D. and Bartlett, P.P. (1996) Turtles and Tortoises: Everything About Selection, Care, Nutrition, Housing, and Behavior. Barron’s Educational Series, Hauppauge, New York.
  6. Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (June, 2008)