Ornate Box Turtle

By Jan O.



Terrapene ornata ornata


Upto  4" - 5"


Hatchling and juvenile ornate box turtles are highly carnivorous.  Preferred live foods include worms, snails, slugs, beetles, crickets, grasshoppers, and grubs.  Ornate box turtles, even as adults, are slightly more carnivorous than other box turtles.  As they get older, ornates will eat plants and fruits.


Daytime Air Temperature:  70 - 90°

Basking Temperature:  80 - 90°

Humidity:  30 - 60%


Plains, prairies, open woodlands, sandy areas with scrubby vegetation.


Southern South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, eastern Wyoming, eastern Colorado, eastern New Mexico, Missouri, and portions of Louisiana, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.




Unless it is a very young hatchling, ornate box turtles do best outdoors.  The habitat should be secure from predators, including raccoons, cats, dogs, possums, and humans.  A variety of low shrubs for hiding, trees for shade, and plants for food are desirable.  A moist compost pile of leaves and grass makes a perfect home for grubs, beetles, worms, snails, and slugs that a box turtle can hunt.  Water is necessary at all times for soaking and drinking.  The habitat should have moist areas and dry ones.  Ornate box turtles do not need a lot of air humidity, but they do need to be able to dig into moist spots under bushes or in one of the hides.



Outdoors is best, and at least 16 sq. ft. is the minimal size for an adult.  Box turtles are good climbers and diggers.  The base of the pen should extend 8-12 inches below the surface using wood, heavy-duty chicken wire or hardware cloth, or cinder blocks.  The walls of the pen should be about 18 inches high and should be made of wood or something else that does not give the turtle a good surface for climbing.  Making rounded joints instead of square corners will discourage escape attempts so common in corners.  If your pen does have square corners, use a wide piece of wood across the top to block the turtle from climbing out.  It also doesn't hurt to put a wooden lip along the entire top edge of the pen.  Better safe than sorry with these escape artists!  If you suspect that predators, including humans, could be a problem, make a locking screen top for the pen.  If your pen is large, the top can be made in sections to make it easier to open and close.

Choose a sunny, warm location where the pen will get morning and afternoon sun.  Box turtles like to hunt at those times of the day.  Dirt, rocks, logs, and other “furniture” make the pen more interesting and will discourage turtles from patrolling the margins of the pen looking for escape routes.  Rocks and logs also provide places to hide, which are essential for box turtles.  You can build wood hides easily by propping one end on a rock or up against other pieces of wood.  Terracotta plant pots also make good hides.  Mounds, logs, clumps of plants, etc. are also good for breaking up the line-of-sight and making a pen seem larger to the turtle.  If he can't see all the way across to the other side of the pen, he'll be less likely to try to escape.

Plant the pen with a variety of grasses, wildflowers, and shrubs.  Choose a shady spot for a compost pile made of leaves and grass clippings that haven't been treated with fertilizers or pesticides.  Get some worms, snails, and other bugs and put them in the compost.  Pretty soon, they'll start reproducing and your box turtles will have a nice supply of live food.  Add clippings and leaves to the pile occasionally and sprinkle it with water to keep it moist during the summer.

If your soil isn't deep enough for your box turtle to dig in, you can supplement it with organic top soil, regular dirt from your yard (not treated with pesticide or fertilizer), peat moss, or cypress mulch.  Do Not use anything with cedar or pine, however, as these aromatic woods can cause respiratory problems.


If an ornate box turtle needs to live indoors, the enclosure should be as large as possible.  I wouldn't use anything smaller than a 50 gallon Rubbermaid plastic tub for an adult so that you can provide the microenvironments your box turtle needs.  Substrate can be one or a combination of several things:  top soil, cypress mulch, peat moss, sphagnum moss, and bed-a-beast, and it should be several inches deep.  You'll need to supply lighting and heat indoors.  Turtles need UVA and UVB light.  Fluorescent tubes such as the Reptisun 5.0 provide UVA & B; ceramic heat emitters provide heat; mercury vapor bulbs supply both UV and heat.  One end of the tub should be warm—the basking end—and the other end should be cooler.  For adults, the cool end can be room temperature, assuming you don't keep your house below 70 degrees in the winter.  Provide the same types of hides, a water dish, and interesting “furniture” indoors that you do outdoors.  A portion of the substrate should be kept moist, but not extremely wet, so that the turtle can bury itself in a moist microenvironment when it needs to.


Ornate box turtles are more carnivorous than other box turtles.  These guys evolved on the plains and one of their preferred food sources was beetles and grubs in bison dung.  In captivity, the most common live foods used are crickets, superworms, red wigglers, earthworms, mealworms, wax worms, silkworms, and even pinky mice.  Mealworms and wax worms are not recommended as a staple because the mealworms are harder to digest and wax worms have a lot of fat.  Silkworms are good because they're fed on mulberry leaves, which are high in calcium.  All insects should be gut loaded with a high calcium food source and dusted with calcium powder before feeding.  You can also wet the insects in some baby squash (the kind in jars sold for human babies!), then roll the insect in calcium powder.  I use that technique when I need to get more Vitamin A into the turtle.

Ornates will also eat flowers, greens, fruit, carrots, and squash when offered as part of a salad.  To entice them to eat the salad, you may need to sprinkle a few worms on top or mix in some moistened Mazuri or RepCal pellets.

Foods to avoid include corn, spinach, broccoli Brussels sprouts, cabbage, beans, peas, and cauliflower because they interfere with the body's utilization of calcium.  Box turtles love corn, for example, but it really isn't good for them.


You can keep multiple ornate box turtles together if your enclosure is large enough.  Unless your enclosure is quite large, it's better to have only one male because they can become aggressive towards each other.  Multiple females usually get along fine.  If you're going to house different sexes together, it's better to have at least 2 females to 1 male, otherwise the lone female will be harassed constantly.  Males are very persistent!


Why does it say “No” to ornate box turtles being a good beginner turtle?  People have a lot of trouble with ornates in captivity for a couple of reason.  One is that wild caught adults frequently have a difficult time adapting to captivity, and they're often very stressed by the time they reach the pet store or the dealer.  The second reason is that people misunderstand the ornate's environmental needs.  They do come from a drier climate in terms of humidity in the air than Terrapene carolina species.  However, people tend to keep them too dry, which leads to ear abscesses and puffy eyes.  When given an enclosure with a choice of moist (not wet) and dry microenvironments, they do much better.