Western Box Turtles Overview


Western Box Turtles, ornate on the left and desert on the right

Western Box Turtles
Ornate and desert” by Dawson . Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Commons.

Terrapene ornata is the scientific name for a species of box turtle usually called the Western box turtle. Sometimes it’s also called the Western Ornate.

And sometimes it’s called the Ornate box turtle, which can get confusing, because one of its subspecies is also called the ornate box turtle. The other subspecies is the desert box turtle. To avoid confusion, we will call the species the Western box turtle.

The patterned versions of this turtle are very pretty, and it’s not surprising that in 1986 Kansas named Terrapene ornata the state reptile.

Habitat of the Western Box Turtles

The Western box turtle lives in a relatively large area, mostly in the western US. Its range is from the Rocky Mountains eastward to about the Mississippi River in the southern states. Farther north it also lives east of the Mississippi in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin.

One subspecies also lives in the states of Chihuahua and Sonora in Mexico.

The ranges of the two subspecies do not overlap much.

It prefers prairies, grasslands and scrubland deserts throughout these areas. Because they do still need water, you’re likely to find them near water holes or river edges.

Habits of Western Box Turtles

Because the daytime can get quite hot and dry in its preferred home, the Western box turtle usually spends its days hiding. It finds dense foliage or digs into the ground, where humidity is higher and temperatures are lower.

It may bask and forage early, before the sun gets too hot. Then it comes back out to hunt for more food late in the day, when temperatures are dropping. It rests again overnight.

It hibernates in the winter, just like its relative the Common Box Turtle. In general, it starts preparing for hibernation in mid-October and is fully settled in for the winter by mid-November. It wakes up around March or April but is pretty sluggish until around May. Then it begins eating more and mating.

Food of the Western Box Turtles

These box turtles eat more meat than their Common counterparts, especially when young. They hunt for worms, spiders, grasshoppers and any other insect they can catch. They especially like to dig through cattle dung to find beetles and flies—their strong front legs and claws make this easy for them.

But they are omnivores and will also eat foliage, fruits and cactus pads, among other things.

If you keep one of these turtles as a pet (make sure it’s legal in your area!), you’ll need to be sure to feed it plenty of insects. Gut-loading the insects makes them more nutritious for your pet. Mixing in some fruits and vegetables will help ensure your pet gets a variety of nutrients to keep him healthy.

Appearance of the Western Box Turtles

These turtles can range from dark with bright yellow lines to a nearly uniform, drab olive or brownish color, depending on the subspecies. They are relatively small, at about 4-6 inches long. The desert box turtle may be slightly bigger than the ornate, although this will depend partly on the animal’s age.

Their carapace is flattened on top and does not have the raised keel many Eastern box turtles have. It may or may not have a yellow line down the center.

Often males have red eyes and females brown.

Males also have a thick, flattened toe on their hind legs to help them hold on during mating.

Box turtle eating strawberry

The two subspecies of Terrapene ornata are:

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