Ornate Box Turtle Care Sheet

Ornate Box Turtle

Scientific Facts

Common Name Ornate Box Turtle
Scientific Name    Terrapene ornata ornata
Life Span32 to 37 years
Size5 to 7 inches in length
Habitat  Great Plains of the US
Country of OriginUnited States
Conservation StatusNear Threatened

Physical Description

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One of the two subspecies of Terrapene Ornata, the Ornate Box Turtle or Western Box Turtle is an endemic reptile species in the Midwest Section of the United States. It is directly related to the Sonoran Box or Desert Box Turtles of the Southwest United States and Northern Mexico.

This small but terrible reptile lives on its beautiful dome-shaped brown shell with yellow highlights that resembles starburst patterns and has no central kneel. Their skins are gray with spots of white or yellow, with rare cases of green spot developing on a male’s head during its maturation. 

Their sizes range from only 5 to 7 inches, with males having a smaller length than the females. Determining their gender through their cloaca is a bit confusing, because of this, the turtle enthusiasts and owners are advised to check a box turtle’s gender through the other turtle properties. 

A male ornate turtle is characterized with shorter carapace, has a concaved plastron or bottom side of the turtle, has red or orange iris. On the other hand, the female ornate turtles have longer shells, flat plastron, and has brownish to deep-brown iris. Despite these differences, there are male and female ornate turtles who share the same flat plastrons, creating difficulties in mating during the ideal season for reproduction.


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There are no subspecies for the Ornate Box Turtle as it is already a subspecies of the Terrapene Ornata. As mentioned, it is directly related to the Box turtles being in the deserts of Southwest US and Northern Mexico.


Contrary to the Desert Box Turtle, the Ornate Box Turtles live in the prairie areas of Midwest US and completely experience the Four Seasons of the country, contrary to its cousin that roams in the hot deserts of the Southwest.

Due to the changing environment of the Midwest, the Ornate Box Turtles have completely evolved and learned to adapt to this concern, contrary to how the Desert Boxes live. Despite these differences, they share the similarity of having dome-shaped boxes, gender identification and their diet.

The Sonoran Box Turtles, however, have raised kneels, which lacks the Ornate Turtles.

Life Span

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Ornate Box Turtles are known to live for quite a long time, just like how humans do, when they live a healthy life. These small and adorable reptiles live for 32 to 37 years. Despite their unique environment in the United States, these turtles share the same life stages of turtles and other reptiles living in captivity and the wild:

Egg Hatching

A female ornate lays eggs once or twice a year. Each process creates 2 to 8 eggs that are laid in exposed areas with loose soils. These eggs will hatch after 2 to 3 months and will start their journey as hatchlings. Lovely as it is, but these eggs are highly vulnerable during the time that they are laid, up to the hatching time.

Young Ornate

As they have successfully grown from their embryos and cracks their eggs, the hatchlings begin their journey in traveling away from their nest and live alone. Just like the other reptiles, they must learn from different dangers, such as the climate, predators, viruses, and human intervention. Mostly, these youngsters live in the prairie areas of the Midwest and enjoy living in grasslands. They start to develop their food diet of being an omnivore- an animal that both eats other animals and plants.

Adult Ornate

The younger broods have successfully outlawed different dangers and illnesses. This is the time that they have reached their adulthood. A male turtle reaches their sexual maturity on their 8th to 9th year, while the females wait for 10 to 11 years. As soon as they have reached this maturity, these turtles are considered as adults, capable of reproducing the same kind of reptiles and give birth to another batch of younger turtles.

Eating Habits

Aside from their striking shells, the Ornate Turtles become unique among the other reptile species because of their diet. They are Omnivores and enjoy eating insects and plants.

Ornate Turtles enjoy eating smaller insects that live in prairie areas, such as grasshoppers, beetles, earthworms, and slugs. However, the availability of food depends from one season to another, thus considering wild plants to be a part of their overall diet. They also eat grasses, dandelions, and berries. In some selected states of the Midwest, residents have seen these turtles eating wild berries and some flowers that they can see in the prairies.

These turtles are known to move slowly, and due to this handicap, they tend to eat the insects that move closer to them. They are somehow can be considered as stealthy eaters, heavily depending on the movements. In terms of hydration, these turtles rely on the rivers and shallow streams upon their journey. The states of Michigan and Wisconsin have seen the unique behavior of turtles wherein they travel from a remote region in their states and come close to the Great Lakes, in search of safe and stable water supply, as well as their ideal foods and breeding grounds.

In conclusion, because of the turtles’ mobility, their range of diet becomes so wide, to the point that they will eat the possible foods which are only available on the place where they come and go.

Sleeping Habits

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The Ornate Turtles are known to be mobile animals, thus making their idle moments be their time to recharge and take some rest. They are generally diurnal, as their food sources can only be seen during the day, such as the beetles and other insects. They are tolerable to sunlight exposure, considering that they live in prairies of the Midwest. However, they cannot survive their daily lives always exposed to the sun, and this pushes them to dig burrows and help themselves regulate their body temperature, especially during the harsh summer days and long winter nights. In general, the Ornate Box Turtles are known to bury themselves in piles of leaves or hide in woods, some turtles seek for mud pools and stay for a longer time to keep their body temperatures stable and optimal even in the Summer season.

This sleeping behavior helps and harms them in different ways. Sleeping at night can protect themselves in being predated by the nocturnal beasts such as the wolves and snakes. Also, they have poor eye sights at night, avoiding different natural obstacles that can turn them upside down and lead to a painful death due to the exposure of their soft plastrons.

On the other hand, being awake in the morning challenges them to face difficult and stressful situations such as chasing with the raccoons or avoiding human interactions which often touches them and picks them unexpectedly from the ground.

Development and Reproduction

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The Ornate Box Turtles have a relatively long lifespan of up to 3 or 4 decades, with some making it to 5 or 6. With this long lifespan, they are susceptible to a slow growth rate, not requiring them to undergo drastic changes, but patiently wait for their development.

As soon as the male and female Ornate Boxes have reached their sexual maturity, they are already capable of mating and producing their eggs.

The mating season starts right after the onset of Spring, where all animals that hibernated during the winter season, wakes up and search for new sources of food. When a male turtle seeks to find a new source of food, it often leads to the place where female turtles exist, thus triggering the male to activate its sexual aggressiveness and attract the female turtle to mate.

Upon seeing a female turtle during this mating season, a male turtle approaches its prospect and tries to climb on its back while keeping a skin contact with the female’s tail through its feet. After stimulating the female, the male turtle attempts its tail to move closer with the female’s cloaca and the mating begins.

As soon as the mating ends, the female turtle can keep the sperm cells of her partner for four years and can still reproduce viable eggs even if the process only happened once after several years.


Ornate Box Turtles are known to be mobile and do not mind to live with the other Ornate Box Turtles even if they are both male or females. They rarely display aggression with the same sex, considering that they are slow to move and prioritizes searching for food while keeping their body temperature at a normal level. 

However, everything changes during the mating season, where the sexual aggressiveness of all-male turtles becomes higher than the average and goes mad at all. The fights happening between male Ornate Box Turtles are due to the privilege of having intercourse with a female turtle, thus making their fights more intense and goes way more than the expected result of fights. 

As soon as the mating season ends, the sexual aggression of male turtles subsides. Their priority now returns to their search for food and a perfect spot to take some rest. There are no specific breeding grounds for the turtles considering that they live in wide areas of the Midwest, but some believe that their mating area is near on where they have good access for the foods that they need, considering that their hibernation has just ended.

Health Concerns

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Ornate Box Turtles are not excused in experiencing different health concerns, be it in captivity or the wild. They are all susceptible to the same illnesses, especially those sicknesses related to their shells. 

Respiratory Infections 

This illness is caused by a viral infection that makes the turtles lethargic, has excess mucous discharges in their mouth, loss of appetite, wheezing sound, and open mouth breathing. If left unaided, the said infection may kill the turtle. 


Another infection usually happening with the turtles, Abscess is an inflammation of a part of a turtle’s body characterized by a pus-filled swollen part. Aside from pus, it is also very dry and hard and often develops on the turtle’s ear, besides the eye. Its underlying cause is the lack of nutrition from what they eat. 

Vitamin A Deficiency 

If you think that humans are the only creatures vulnerable to this type of sickness, think again. Turtles can have the struggle in gaining an adequate amount of Vitamin A for their body because of the sources that they consume during their captivity. This is why clean and organic vegetables are the best-advised foods for them to keep this deficiency eradicated from their system. If left unaided, this will result in the change of color in their skin, loss of appetite and swelling of their eyelids. 

Shell Rot 

This popular sickness of box turtles us primarily due to a bacterial or fungal infection. The shell is impenetrable by any organism, but the shell rotting happens if a turtle is unconsciously exposed with fungi or any bacteria, affecting their skins and shells. If left unaided, it will cause a deep-seated ulcer for the turtle with the pungent smell for the specific part damaged.

Preventing Illnesses

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The best way to prevent all illnesses with your owned turtles is by keeping them safe, secure and well-sanitized in your provided cage. They are a bit costly to maintain and need to be checked from time to time. 

Giving them organic foods also help in boosting their immune system in combatting the viral diseases that happen and vary season after season, considering that their original habitat experiences constant changes. 

Providing them a lamp with Ultraviolet B Rays is a good way of adding a blanket of protection for your turtles. One must also keep the ideal temperature inside the cage, ranging from 75 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit or 24 to 27 degrees Celsius on the hot side and 70 degrees Fahrenheit or 21 degrees Celsius on the cool side. For the basking area, the ideal temperature must be the same as its natural habitat that ranges from 85 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit or 29 to 32 degrees Celsius. During the night, one can keep the temperature drop up to 60 degrees Fahrenheit or 15 degrees Celsius. 

Apart from these preventive moves, it is also important to have your turtles checked regularly by veterinarians nearby. It may cost you so much, but it is more important to keep your pets in better condition than the first time that you have them.


Ornate Box Turtles undergo the reptilian Brumation cycle, considering that they experience winter in their natural habitats in the Midwest. They are included with the animals that are unable to create warmth on their own and depend on the heat-generating systems with nature. 

Brumation is caused by the ectothermic condition of the reptiles or simply being cold-blooded animals. Ornate Box Turtles are no excuse for that condition and because of this, they heavily rely on the environment to successfully regulate their body temperature and manage to live longer. During this time, Ornate Box Turtles completely stop in doing any daily activities to save their body in sustaining colder temperature which is hard to eradicate in the middle of the winter season. 

As soon as the winter arrives, the turtles begin to seek their shelter by digging their burrows deep in the ground, avoiding the harsh winter blizzards that may happen during the white season. This important cycle in their lives lasts for 2 to 3 months, depending on the length of their winter season.


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Unlike the other reptiles that molt their skin completely, the turtles, specifically the Box types do not shed their skin at all. Instead, they shed their shells, in response to the growth that they must undergo and keep the shell from being infected and rot. 

A turtle’s shell is made up of bones and cartilage underneath and the external protective cover called scutes. The scutes are made up of keratin layers, the same with the composition of our finger and toenails.  

As a young turtle grows bigger, its scutes begin flaking and change with wider covers to give a better space for its changing body. The younger the Ornate Box Turtle is, the more frequent that the scute-shedding happens. As it reaches its full maturation, an Ornate Box may not experience the scute-shedding process for years. 

To aid your turtle in this process, it is important to keep it dry and avoid too much interaction with water to avoid the shell rotting. Remember that as this process takes place, the shell becomes more vulnerable to any infections due to the newly-installed layer that has not yet covered the entire shell very well.


One must remember that an Ornate Turtle enjoys living on vast prairies of the Midwest States, and because of this, the tank where it will be kept must have this type of set-up. A prairie is a grassland with a complete ecosystem and sufficient water supply, just like the meadows.

The Midwest States are always remembered with their vast plains full of different endemic and other species, just like the Ornate Box Turtle. However, due to robust commercialization of lands and rapid population growth in different settlements of the states, the natural habitats of Ornate Boxes have reduced remarkably over the years, decreasing their count in the wilderness and increased their exposure with the humans, making them be a part of the massive market for pets. 

These situations have put the entire population of the Ornate Boxes at risk of being threatened, that’s why, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has included these turtles in the status of Nearly Threatened species, expecting their population in the wild to decrease further.

Efforts have been made to keep the Great Plains be in excellent condition as well as its prairies and meadows, even its forests and agricultural farms.

Lighting, Humidity, and Temperature

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Ornate Box Turtles are diurnal animals, keeping their daily activities up in the morning and sleep at night. They are ectothermic species, thus depending on their body warmth with the sunlight they receive in the morning.

In captivity, the Ornate Boxes need an effective source of light with UV rays for their better thermal regulation and homeostasis. While in the terrarium, the ideal temperature inside the cage ranges from 75 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit or 24 to 27 degrees Celsius on the hot side and 70 degrees Fahrenheit or 21 degrees Celsius on the cool side. For the basking area, the ideal temperature must be the same as its natural habitat that ranges from 85 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit or 29 to 32 degrees Celsius. During the night, one can keep the temperature drop up to 60 degrees Fahrenheit or 15 degrees Celsius.

If the turtle is younger, it is required that the Humidity Level inside the cage must be 60% to 70%. If it grows older, the mature Ornates can live normally with a humid level of 40% to 50%.

One must remember that the basking spot for the Ornate Box Turtles must not include a hot rock to keep accidents away from these small turtles, such as skin burns. It is also advised that the basking spot will be elevated from the tank bedding to add a cooler effect on the tank’s bed.

Tank Bedding and Accessories

The ideal tank size for a single Ornate Box is a 75-gallon size. However, if the scarcity of household space occurs, a 40-gallon size can be of great use.

One of the most important elements in a turtle’s tank is its beddings. The bedding must be made of soil with four inches thick to create better rooms on their self-made burrows. For aesthetic and coolant purposes, one can add some leaves or cypress mulch, milled twice. It is also important to consider peat moss to be added on the cool side of the tank.

For the tank’s accessories, one must consider imitating prairies to make the Ornate turtles more comfortable in roaming around inside the tank. It also helps them to be more relaxed in experiencing a transition of natural to a man-made habitat.

It can also help a turtle to adapt to the presence of water inside the cage to keep itself hydrated.


The turtle’s cage must be cleaned at least once every two weeks or upon a regular basis, to ward away any possible bacterial or fungal infections seriously harming your turtles. It is also good to keep the food sources of your turtles be clean, organic and pesticide-free.

Avoid cleaning the tank without having another temporary container with a similar set-up be prepared. For the tanks with a pool of water included, avoid keeping the water in too blurred condition, as this will give an optimal room for bacterial and fungal growth.

Keep the tank bedding free from any other unprecedented insects that may harm your turtles, given the fact that they dig some burrows to have it as their home. Also, avoid applying chemicals inside the tank just to sanitize it, as all of those liquids will be absorbed by the soil and will directly affect your turtles.

Natural Environment

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As mentioned, the Natural Habitat of Ornate Boxes is the vast Great Plains full of meadows, grasslands, and prairies.  The Midwest is composed of several states lying beside the Great Lakes and included in the Tornado Alley. To make your turtles comfortable in living inside your tank, imitate the condition on where they live. It will surely help your turtles cope immediately with the change that they have to feel the experience.

As soon as they gain the confidence, your turtles will start to move swiftly inside your cage, familiarizing all of its spots and choosing the perfect spot to dig for their new home. Avoid overpopulation as this may result in a substantial food competition among your turtles and may kill another in the longer process due to the stress that they may feel towards one another.

The Legality of it as a Pet

Ornate Box Turtles are considered to be unique terrestrial animals of the Midwest which can be boasted throughout the globe. They symbolize the resiliency of Midwesterners in living their lives, despite the challenges they face, including the annual tornado season which ravages their homes and communities that leads to humongous damages and casualties.

The Federal Law of the United States of America generally disallows its citizens to keep an animal with threatening conservation status in someone’s home. However, the states can simply ignore the law and create a State Law of their own which can be fully implemented and enforced within their jurisdictions. With the passage of Endangered Species Act, it is an advantage for those who love to keep their reptiles, that the Ornate Box Turtles are not included in the list of endangered species needed to be conserved and reproduced again for the future years, but it comes closer to the danger status.

Going down in the statehoods, Kansas, Nebraska, Indiana, and Iowa prohibits their citizens to keep an Ornate Box Turtles in anybody’s home. On the other hand, the other American states such as Illinois and Missouri, they allow their citizens to keep some turtles of different kinds in their homes, provided that they should apply for special licensing in keeping their reptiles.

Availability- How to Get One?

Ornate Box Turtles are among the favorite pets of the Midwesterners, despite the restrictions being enforced by their State Governments. The turtle’s resiliency and its eagerness to move despite its slow rate captivates their attention and makes them admire these turtles.

How to take care of a Green Ornate Turtle?

Taking good care of an Ornate Box Turtles has to be linked to how to take good care of the other reptiles. Remember that an Ornate Box Turtles must have the following conditions at all times:

Experience minimal human physical interaction to avoid stress and possible body infections

  •  Live in relatively warm places
  • Eat clean foods, just like us humans,
  • Offer them the best higher spots for sunbathing during the day
  • Regulate and keep the ideal temperature and humidity at all times
  • Give them safe foods to eat
  • Do not let male turtles live in the same terrarium
  • Help the turtle shed their scutes faster by giving them stable water supply and keep them hydrated
  • Keep their future babies placed in a different tank in the time that a female turtle laid its eggs

FAQ Section

Can I pet Box Turtles?

It is preferred to keep your box turtles away from human hands, as they can be easily stressed in what’s happening around them. It is also a potential way of bacterial transmission from our hands to them and vice versa. However, one is not prohibited in touching the turtles, considering that they are irresistible and perfectly adorable.

Do they bite?

Of course, and this is just like the other animals who are in dire need of defending themselves in case of a looming direct threat to them. They are not as smart as the dogs and cats, but turtles, such this one, have their ways of living their lives to the fullest, excluding the threats and dangers.

Do they eat plants?

Yes, but it is only 10% of their total diet. They enjoy more in eating organic and pesticide-free insects such as crickets, beetles, cockroaches, even worms and other creepy crawlers.

Is it normal for them to open their mouth while they breathe?

It is not, and actually, it is an indicator that your Ornate Box is experiencing something wrong with their breathing. If this happens, it is recommended that you bring your turtle immediately to a vet and let your turtle undergo a series of tests, if needed.

My turtle is developing some big lumps at its hind leg, is it cancerous?

Chances are that it is, but before doing anything else, you might want to consider some opinions with the other turtle owners before rushing it to the clinic for surgery or medications.

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