Desert Box Turtles Overview


Desert Box Turtle (Terrapene ornata luteola)

Desert Box Turtle
Cropped version of “Desert-box-turtle” by Sue in az. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.


The desert box turtle, along with its more familiar cousin the ornate box turtle, is a subspecies of the Western box turtle (sometimes also called the Ornate box turtle). Its appearance and lifestyle are similar to the ornate, although there are some differences.

What the Desert Box Turtle Looks Like

Similar in size to an ornate, the desert box turtle is usually about 4 to 6 inches long. Its carapace is dome-shaped without a raised keel.

There are actually two different color variations (sometimes called morphs) of this box turtle. One is very similar to the ornate, with a pattern of yellow lines (but not necessarily the same neat starburst pattern) on each scute. But the carapace is a lighter brown color.

The plastron may also have a pattern similar to the ornate turtle, but the overall color is also lighter, often yellowish.

Despite the lighter color of the patterned desert box turtle, it’s not always easy to tell it apart from an ornate unless you are comparing them directly.

The other desert box turtle morph is unpatterned and much less common. It’s brownish or yellowish, sometimes greenish. It may have some striping, but nothing obvious.

Where the Desert Box Turtle Lives

The desert box turtle has a smaller range than the ornates. You’ll find these guys in some parts of Arizona, New Mexico and western Texas. They also live in the Mexican states of Sonora and Chihuahua.

It prefers drier areas than any other box turtle. In fact, you’ll usually find them on the edges of the desert (thus their name). Since they do still need water, there’s likely to be a watering hole or other water source near their homes.

How the Desert Box Turtle Lives

These turtles are most active when humidity is higher, including summer monsoon months.

When the weather is drier they spend most of daytime hours burrowed underground or hidden under dense foliage. The microclimate (or microhabitat) is more humid in these places.

In general female desert box turtles mature after about 10 years and males at about 8 years. Some mature faster in captivity. They can live for 50 years or more.

What the Desert Box Turtle Eats

Like the ornate box turtle, the desert box turtle likes insects as its main food source. They’re good at catching things like grasshoppers and like to dig into dung piles for beetles and grubs.

They’ll also eat cacti pads, berries, fruits and other plant material.

Like ornates, if you have a desert box turtle as a pet, you can feed them plenty of gut-loaded live foods plus a salad of vegetables and fruits.

Box turtle eating strawberry

Learn more about what you can and shouldn’t feed a box turtle in What Box Turtles Eat (you can go a little higher than the recommended 50% meat for these guys) and Foods to Never Feed Your Box Turtle.

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