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Ornate Box Turtle

Terrapene ornata

What do they look like?

The western box turtle's shell, tail, head, and limbs are mostly dark brown or black in color. They have rings on their shells that show their age, as well as thick, yellow lines on their shells. All adults have yellow spots on their head, but subspecies T. o. luteola (desert box turtle) has more yellow stripes on their shells and body than T. o. ornata (ornate box turtle). Males are also more brightly colored, with bright red eyes and green heads. Females have brown or black eyes and head. Adults weight between 198 to 538 g. They are about 120 mm in length, though females are slightly larger than males. (Bernstein and Black, 2005; Blair, 1976; Costanzo, 1982; Gatten, Jr., 1974; Metcalf and Metcalf, 1985; Miller and Birchard, 2005; Packard, et al., 1985; St. Clair, 1998)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • female larger
  • male more colorful
  • Range mass
    198 to 538 g
    6.98 to 18.96 oz
  • Average mass
    398 g
    14.03 oz
  • Range length
    95 to 150 mm
    3.74 to 5.91 in
  • Average length
    120 mm
    4.72 in
  • Range basal metabolic rate
    0.05 to 0.30 cm3.O2/g/hr
  • Average basal metabolic rate
    0.158 cm3.O2/g/hr

Where do they live?

Terrapene ornata, the western box turtle, is native to North America. It is found in the southwestern and central United States between the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi River. It is found as far north as Wisconsin and South Dakota, and as far south as northwestern Mexico. There are two subspecies, the ornate box turtle (Terrapene ornata ornata) and the desert box turtle (Terrapene ornata luteola). Both subspecies can be found in the Great Plains, while the desert box turtle is in New Mexico, Arizona, and Mexico, and the ornate box turtle is more common in Central United States. (Bernstein and Black, 2005; Bowen, et al., 2004; Doroff and Keith, 1990; Nieuwolt-Dacanay, 1997; Packard, et al., 1985)

What kind of habitat do they need?

The western box turtle primarily lives on land. It can be found in grasslands, as well as sand dunes, agricultural land, and occasionally in ponds and wetlands. These turtles spend much of their time in small underground burrows, especially during warm parts of the day and during winter. They live at altitudes ranging from sea level to 6,500 m, but are typically found around 1,500 m. (Bernstein and Black, 2005; Bernstein, et al., 2007; Converse and Savidge, 2003; Degenhardt and Christiansen, 1974; Doroff and Keith, 1990; Metcalf and Metcalf, 1970; Nieuwolt-Dacanay, 1997; Plummer, 2004)

  • Aquatic Biomes
  • lakes and ponds
  • Range elevation
    sea level to 6,500 m
    to ft
  • Average elevation
    1,500 m

How do they grow?

To begin their life cycle, female box turtles lay eggs. They have large eggs compared to other related species, and the size of the egg depends on the pelvic size of the female. The eggs incubate for about 50 days, though they can develop faster at warmer temperatures. The sex of the young is also determined by the surrounding temperature. Eggs that develop at or above 29°C will usually become females. Eggs that develop below 28°C usually become males. Western box turtles are well developed at the time of hatching, and continue to grow over time. They reach their maximum size at about 13 years of age. (Blair, 1976; Doroff and Keith, 1990; Metcalf and Metcalf, 1970; Metcalf and Metcalf, 1985; Miller and Birchard, 2005; Nieuwolt-Dacanay, 1997; Packard, et al., 1985)

How do they reproduce?

Mating takes place between April and October. Males usually pursue female mates. To win the female, the male does such courtship behaviors as staring at the female, following her around, and rubbing up against her. He may also nudge and bump her shell, and position himself on top of her. In response, the female often runs from the male, leaving him behind to chase her or to fight with other males who want to mate. Chasing the female lasts about half an hour, and then the female will mate with the winning male. To mate, the male holds the female from behind with all four of his limbs. The male may squirt water out of his nose, due to his stomach being squished from being pressed up against the female. Males and females can both mate with several different mates in one mating season. Females can store sperm from several different males. (Blair, 1976; Brumwell, 1940; Taylor, 1933)

Females are usually able to mate when they are 8 years old, and males are able to mate when they are 5 years old. Smaller males often attempt to mate with larger females because of this. Mating may not occur when the weather is very dry and there is little food. After mating, the fertilized eggs are held inside the female for about 50 days. The eggs are usually laid at the end of July in nests that the female builds. Nests are usually built in sandy soil, 10 cm underneath rocks or vegetation. Females lay their eggs two hours after sunrise or two hours before sunset. They then leave their eggs in the nest and do not return, and as a result many young die shortly after hatching. Western box turtles only lay one or two clutches per mating season, laying 1 to 8 eggs. Each egg weighs about 10 g. The subspecies lay different amounts of eggs, with ornate box turns laying less eggs than desert box turtles. (Avise and Pearse, 2001; Blair, 1976; Doroff and Keith, 1990; Nieuwolt-Dacanay, 1997; Packard, et al., 1985)

  • How often does reproduction occur?
    Western box turtles generally breed once or twice during the summer.
  • Breeding season
    Breeding occurs between April and July.
  • Range number of offspring
    1 to 8
  • Average number of offspring
  • Average gestation period
    50 days
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    8 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    5 years

Males do not provide any care after mating with females. Females provide nutrients and yolk in the eggs for the offspring to develop and grow on. They also lay the eggs in nests, which provides some protection. After the eggs are laid, the female leaves and does not return, giving no more parental care. (Nieuwolt-Dacanay, 1997)

  • Parental Investment
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female

How long do they live?

Western box turtles live between 30 to 37 years in the wild, with most living for about 32 years. The oldest known wild western box turtle was over 40 years old. In captivity, most western box turtles live for about 28.4 years. If these turtles are caught in the wild and very suddenly forced into a captive lifestyle, then they will die quickly. If they are born and raised in captivity, they usually have a more normal lifespan. (Blair, 1976; Converse, et al., 2005)

  • Average lifespan
    Status: wild
    40 years
  • Range lifespan
    Status: captivity
    28.4 (high) years
  • Typical lifespan
    Status: wild
    30 to 37 years
  • Average lifespan
    Status: wild
    32 years

How do they behave?

Western box turtles live on land. Most of their lives are actually spent underground in burrows. Burrows allow them to escape extreme temperatures. Since they are reptiles, their body temperature changes depending on the temperature in their environment, so burrows help to keep their temperature at a healthy level (usually between 21 to 25°C). When their body gets too cold, they come out of the burrows to sit in the sun and warm themselves. They do not spend much time in the water, if any. They also hibernate during the winter. They are solitary, and do not interact with each other except for when mating. (Bernstein and Black, 2005; Bernstein, et al., 2007; Blair, 1976; Converse and Savidge, 2003; Converse, et al., 2005; Degenhardt and Christiansen, 1974; Doroff and Keith, 1990; Gatten, Jr., 1974; Metcalf and Metcalf, 1970; Metcalf and Metcalf, 1979; Nieuwolt, 1996; Nieuwolt-Dacanay, 1997; Packard, et al., 1985; Plummer, 2004)

  • Range territory size
    0.002 to 0.581 km^2
  • Average territory size
    0.05 km^2

Home Range

Western box turtles usually stay in one general area. They also hibernate in the same places year after year, usually in sand dunes. Each turtle's home range may overlap with another turtle's. Adults live in about 0.054 hectares of space, while juveniles have much smaller home ranges of about 0.015 hectares. Home ranges depend on how much food is available; if there is plenty of food, the turtle will not have to travel as far. (Bernstein, et al., 2007; Doroff and Keith, 1990; Metcalf and Metcalf, 1979; Nieuwolt, 1996)

How do they communicate with each other?

Western box turtles do not interact with each other, except for mating, so little is known about their communication. Their interactions during mating include bumping each others shells, and males may fight each other. To perceive their environment, they use the senses of smell, sight, and touch. They find their food through smell, and also sense movement. (Fitch, 1965; Metcalf and Metcalf, 1970; Nieuwolt, 1996)

What do they eat?

Western box turtles are omnivores, meaning they eat both plants and animals, or whatever else is available. The most common foods that western box turtles eat include earthworms, grasshoppers, beetles, slugs, fruits, and plants. They tend to eat other animals about twice as much as plants and fruits. Young western box turtles tend to eat more insects than adults. Plants they eat include mulberries (Morus alba), dandelion (Taraxacum) flowers, and prickly pear cacti (Opuntia humifusa). They have also been seen eating small fish, dead animals, and feces. (Costanzo, 1982; Doroff and Keith, 1990; Metcalf and Metcalf, 1970; Nieuwolt-Dacanay, 1997; Stone and Moll, 2006)

  • Animal Foods
  • fish
  • eggs
  • body fluids
  • carrion
  • insects
  • terrestrial non-insect arthropods
  • mollusks
  • terrestrial worms
  • other marine invertebrates
  • Plant Foods
  • leaves
  • seeds, grains, and nuts
  • fruit
  • flowers
  • Other Foods
  • dung

What eats them and how do they avoid being eaten?

Since these turtles are small and do not move around much, spending much of their time in burrows, they are easy targets for many predators. Common predators include coyotes (Canis latrans), striped skunks (Mephitis mephitis), white necked ravens (Corvus cryptoleucus), crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos), copperheads (Agkistrodon contortrix), raccoons (Procyon lotor), Virginia opossums (Didelphis virginiana), American minks (Neovison vison), red foxes (Vulpes vulpes), and dogs (Canis lupus familiaris).

To protect themselves, box turtles can tighten their shells and pull their head and limbs into the shell, making it hard for predators to get to any soft body parts. Western box turtles may also fight back, or walk away. Most of the time though, they freeze and wait for the predator to leave. They may also go into their burrows or go into water. Many turtles often have scratches and scars on their shells and bodies from encounters with predators. (Doroff and Keith, 1990; Metcalf and Metcalf, 1970; Miller and Birchard, 2005; Temple, 1987; Wren, et al., 1998)

What roles do they have in the ecosystem?

Western box turtle eggs are eaten by many predators, since they are laid on land and left alone. Juveniles and adults are also preyed upon by many animals, including dogs and coyotes. Western box turtles often have parasitic mites on them, including Harpyrhynchus novoplumaris and Harpyrhychus brevis. They also can be infected by parasitic roundworms, Oxysomatium variabilis. Western box turtles also disperse seeds, by eating them and then bringing the seeds to a new location in their feces, where the seeds can grow. They also sometimes eat dead animal bodies, helping to decompose them. (Harwood, 1930; Moss, et al., 1968; Stone and Moll, 2009; Temple, 1987)

Commensal or parasitic species (or larger taxonomic groups) that use this species as a host
  • mite, Harpyrhynchus novoplumaris
  • mite, Harpyrhyncus brevis
  • roundworm, Oxysomatium variabilis

Do they cause problems?

Western box turtles can bite humans when they are feeling threatened. Other turtle species can also spread Salmonella to humans, though western box turtles have not been known to do so, though it is a possibility. (Richards, et al., 2004; Wren, et al., 1998)

  • Ways that these animals might be a problem for humans
  • injures humans
    • bites or stings

How do they interact with us?

Western box turtles are sometimes kept as pets, particularly in Florida and California. These turtles are also the state reptile of Kansas, and are a source of ecotourism in that state, where tourists can learn about the conservation and history of these turtles. (Bowen, et al., 2004; Collins and Collins, 2006)

Are they endangered?

Western box turtle populations are threatened, meaning that these turtles are starting to disappear from the wild and could become endangered unless something is done. Automobiles cause the death of many western box turtles, since the home range of many turtles overlaps with highways and streets. Humans have also been turning these turtles' habitat into houses, buildings, and farm land. Since they spend most of their lives in burrows, western box turtles are easily preyed upon by predators, and can be killed by farming equipment and lawn mowers. Western box turtles are protected by laws in several states, but they are still taken out of the wild and kept as pets in many places, which causes further problems for their population. To prevent these turtles from becoming endangered, their habitats need to be protected from cars and other human activity. (Bernstein, et al., 2007; Bowen, et al., 2004; Converse and Savidge, 2003; Doroff and Keith, 1990)


Lyndsay Coker (author), Radford University, Karen Powers (editor), Radford University, Angela Miner (editor), Animal Diversity Web Staff.


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University of Michigan Museum of ZoologyNational Science Foundation

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Coker, L. 2014. "Terrapene ornata" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed March 02, 2024 at

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