Ornate Box Turtle


Terrapene ornata ornate

Order: Testudines

Family: Emydidae

Natural History Information

Range and Habitat

  • Common box turtles can be found throughout the eastern United States and Mexico. They can live in a wide variety of habitats, from wooded swamps to dry, grassy fields. They are most abundant and healthy in moist forested areas with plenty of underbrush. They will often venture into shallow water at the edge of ponds or streams, or in puddles.


  • Box turtles reach sexual maturity at 7 to 10 years of age, or when they are 5 to 6 inches in length.
  • This species might be able to live as long as 100 years, but a lifespan of 30 to 40 years is more common.

Ecosystem Role

  • Box turtles are generally a land animal, but they will soak in mud or water for stretches of time. During hot, dry spells, a box turtle will spend its time beneath logs or matted vegetation while it waits for it to rain. In winter, box turtles hibernate in loose soil at a depth of up to 2 feet.
  • Home ranges generally measure less than 200 square meters.
  • Young box turtles are extremely secretive and difficult to find in the wild.

Husbandry Information

Housing Requirements

  • Temperature, Humidity, Light Cycles
    • Temperature: 70-90 F; ambient temp ~80 F; basking 90-95 F
    • Humidity: 40-50%
    • Lighting: need at least 5% UVA/UVB lighting
  • Substrate
    • Sphagnum moss and vermiculite or a sandy soil substrate deep enough to burrow in, generally no less than 4 inches deep
    • This species enjoys burrowing, so providing deep substrate into which they can burrow is ideal.

Diet Requirements

  • Diet in the Wild
    • In the wild ornate box turtles are omnivorous. They actively hunt and consume grasshoppers, crickets, beetles and earthworms. Additionally, ornate box turtles will graze on low-growing vegetation, berries and even mushrooms.
  • Diet under human care
    • Under human care, it is important to provide a varied assortment of foods, as the diversity of the ornate box turtle diet can lead to them being picky eaters.
    • Commercially bred cockroaches in addition to crickets, mealworms, earthworms, hard-boiled eggs, ground beef and even canned cat/dog food (which should be your last choice due to the high fat and processed meat content) make for excellent sources of protein.
    • Berries, sliced melon, mushrooms, mustard greens, collard greens and dandelion greens round out the vegetarian side of the menu.

Veterinary Concerns

  • Juveniles may need extra calcium supplementation as they grow. They’re highly carnivorous as juveniles and become less so as adults.
  • It is important to your ornate box turtle’s health to provide a rich calcium source for your turtles as well as a source rich in beta carotene or vitamin A. Therefore, insects should be dusted with a high quality vitamin and mineral supplement prior to being offered.


  • Environmental Enrichment
    • This species enjoys burrowing, so providing deep substrate into which they can burrow is ideal.

Programmatic Information

Messaging Themes

  • Threats and Conservation Status
    • In general, animals seen at the zoo do not make good pets. Most have specialized dietary, veterinary, housing, and social needs that are difficult or impossible for even dedicated pet owners to meet. Always ensure that your future pet has not been taken from the wild. Captured animals are typically mistreated by profit-motivated traffickers and dealers, resulting in many animal deaths; well-meaning animal lovers may feel like they are rescuing animals by purchasing them but are really perpetuating the cruelty. In addition, many exotic pets are released by their owners when they become too dangerous or demanding, often with devastating effects on local ecosystems. Animals that should never be kept as pets include all bats, primates, and exotic carnivores. Birds, fish, and reptiles have specialized needs, are frequently wild-caught, and damage the local environment if released; guests should be advised to educate themselves and proceed with caution. Domestic dogs and cats are almost always the best option! Many deserving animals are available for adoption at animal shelters.
  • Interesting Natural History Information
    • Box turtles have a homing instinct that causes them to try to return to the place where they hatched if they are moved. As a result, when box turtles that have been taken as pets are returned to the wild, they will head straight for their natal grounds – a potentially fatal journey.
    • Like all other species of American box turtle, ornate box turtles possess a hinged plastron.
  • Did you know…
    • Dimorphism: Male ornate box turtles usually have a slightly concave plastron and possess red irises, and female ornate box turtles have a flat plastron with brown or yellow irises. Males also have longer, thicker tails.
    • Adult ornate box turtles are typically between 5 to 7 inches in length, with most ornate box turtles topping out around 6 inches.

Handling & Presentation Tips

Public Contact and Interaction Guidelines

  • Never flip over on their backs, but instead raise vertically to show/display their plastron hinge.

Transportation Tips

  • Brandywine Zoo: During cool weather (under 65°F), supplemental heat is provided with a hot water bottle set to one side of the cooler. Wrap bottle with newspaper for lizards or snakes traveling with the bottle loose, to make cleanups easier in the case of defecation while traveling.

Crating Techniques

  • Brandywine Zoo: reptiles travel in a stackable Coleman style cooler that has been amended with extra ventilation holes on the lid (with a wood-burning tool). With box turtles, the cooler is lined with newspaper.

Acquisition Information

  • This species is widely available from wildlife rehabilitators.
  • After looking at other AZA institutions for surplus animals, check with your local herpetological society and reptile rescue organizations. Many of these animals are purchased by the public at reptile stores and expos and owners are unable to keep them for their whole lifespan. If purchasing, look for a reputable breeder to avoid wild caught specimens.



Contributors and Citations

Comments from the Rating System

  • Henry Vilas Zoo: Native endangered species; people love it; size is good for small groups
  • Lee Richardson Zoo: Ours are wild-caught and will bite if given the opportunity, but this is easy to avoid with proper handling