Ornate Box Turtles Overview


Terrapene ornata ornata, Ornate Box Turtle

Ornate Box Turtle
Cropped version of photo by Patrick Feller. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.


Ornate box turtles are a small, pretty turtle with a wide range.

For the most part they do not make good pets, because they may refuse to eat if the conditions in their habitat are not right. And getting the conditions right can be harder if you live outside their natural range.

What the Ornate Box Turtle Looks Like

The Ornate box turtle is a small turtle, usually no more than 4 to 5 inches (10 to 13 cm) long.

Its carapace is tall (domed) and flattened on top, without the raised central keel of many other box turtles. It does often have a bright yellow line running down the center of the carapace.

The carapace is a very dark brown, sometimes black. On this background, its starburst pattern of 5-7 bright yellow lines on each scute stands out beautifully (giving it its name).

The plastron is also dark brown with yellow stripes. But here the stripes look more like a zebra pattern.

The skin is mostly grayish, spotted with whitish or yellow areas. The scales on the front legs may be yellow or red.

You can often tell males and females apart by a few differences in their appearance:

  • Head color: Females may have a brown head. Males may have green or bluish heads (usually only when mature).
  • Eye color: Males have bright red eyes. Females’ are brown.
  • Hind toe: The males have a thickened, flat first toe on their hind legs. This helps them hold onto the female during mating.

Don’t Confuse Ornate and Florida Box Turtles

Sometimes people confuse the Ornate and Florida box turtles because they can have similar shell patterns. But there are some differences that make it easy (sort of) to tell them apart:

  • The yellow stripes on a Florida box turtle’s carapace are generally thinner than those on an Ornate.
  • The Florida box turtle’s plastron is lighter, without the bold lines of the Ornate.
  • The Florida box turtle’s carapace is tall like the Ornate, but it’s round, not flattened.
  • Finally, a Florida box turtle’s head is lighter colored and striped, not spotted.

So if you’re ever unsure if you’re looking at an Ornate or Florida box turtle, check for these differences.

Where the Ornate Box Turtle Lives

Ornate box turtles have a pretty big range, living in grasslands, deserts and prairie remnants from the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains eastward across the Great Plains states and on into parts of Illinois, Indiana and even western Louisiana.

These turtles are harder to keep in captivity than many others, especially outside their natural range. They prefer less humidity than others and may refuse to eat in more humid climates. Unless you can get their environment right, they may simply starve to death.

In most states of their natural range it is illegal to take an ornate box turtle from the wild.

How the Ornate Box Turtle Lives

Ornates spend much of the day hiding from the heat of the sun. They may bask in the early morning, before it gets too hot. Then they come out to eat around dusk, when they can find lots of their favorite insect foods.

They generally start hibernating around mid-October, although this depends partly on where they live. You may find active Ornates as late as November. They usually come back out of hibernation in March or April and lay eggs in early summer.

What Ornate Box Turtles Eat

These turtles are omnivores, just like other box turtles. But given a choice, they eat more meat than other box turtles. This may be because in their natural Plains habitat, a ready source of food was insects on bison dung. And don’t be surprised to find one digging through cattle dung for beetles.

Young ornates especially are highly carnivorous. Any live insects, from worms to grubs, slugs and grasshoppers are exciting to them.

Older ornates still like their meat but are more open to eating fruits and vegetables.

If you do have one as a pet (not recommended for first-time box turtle keepers), try to feed him a variety of live foods:

  • Mealworms
  • Superworms
  • Earthworms
  • Silk worms
  • Crickets

Make sure you gut-load these guys for a day or two before feeding them to your turtle. It’s also a good idea to dust them with calcium right before feeding.

Box turtle eating strawberry

Although meat is their preferred food, it’s still good for them to eat high-quality plant matter, too. Make them a small salad of things like carrots, squash, lettuce & fruits to encourage them to eat a variety of things. If they’re reluctant, try mixing it with a few mealworms.

For more information on feeding box turtles, check out What Box Turtles Eat.

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