Western Ornate Box Turtle

(Terrapene ornata)

by Jay Sharp

Western Ornate Box Turtle


The western ornate box turtle, with its soulful face, baleful eyes, clumsy gate, indiscriminate diet and reclusive habits, would scarcely seem infused with charm. Yet the turtle, with its ornate shell, intriguing behavior, and sometimes humorous personality, rates as one of the Southwestern desert’s better known and more captivating reptiles.

Distinctive Features

  • Size and Shape: 4 to 6 inches in length, dome-shaped.
  • Shell Structure, Carapace (Top Part of Shell): Made (as with other turtles) of expanded and fused back bones and ribs, covered with scutes (horny plates) that fit together like mosaic tiles.
  • Shell Structure, Plastron (Bottom Part of Shell): Made of fused bones; hinged to permit protective retraction and enclosure of head, legs and tail; covered with scutes.
  • Head: Disproportionally large eyes (often with red irises in the case of the male), a mouth with a horny, ripping beak and jaws and no teeth.
  • Extremities: Neck, legs and tail covered with calloused, typically reptilian scales.
  • Characteristic Colors: Dark brown carapace with distinctive radiating yellow lines; dark brown plastron with yellow lines; grayish brown skin often with light or dark spots; mottled grayish brown to greenish head.
  • Male/Female Differences: Male plastron, typically somewhat depressed, female plastron, more flat; male eyes typically red, female eyes typically yellowish brown; male heads often greenish, female heads more grayish brown.
  • Two Subspecies: One subspecies, the Terrapene ornata ornata, ranges from the upper Midwest southward to Louisiana and westward to Texas and New Mexico; the second, Terrapene ornata luteola – distinguished by the thinner and more numerous yellow stripes on its carapace – ranges from Trans-Pecos Texas across southern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona and southward into Mexico’s Chihuahua and Sonora.

Western Ornate Box Turtle, peeking out of its shell. The reddish irises of the eyes suggest that it is a male. Photo by Michael M. Sharp.

Western ornate box turtle, peeking out of its shell. The reddish irises of the eyes suggest that it is a male. The scutes, or horny plates, that cover the shell have growth rings that give an indication of the turtle’s age. Photo by Michael M. Sharp.


Habitat and Diet

In the northern Chihuahuan and Sonoran Desert parts of its range, the western ornate box turtle – one of the dry land members of its order – occupies the sandy lower drainages, open plains and bajadas of the arid scrublands, and it may occur in the lower forested slopes of the mountain ranges. It may either dig its own burrow or appropriate a rodent burrow or simply seek shade for shelter from excessive heat.  It becomes most active near sunrise or sunset or after a rain.  It may excavate or appropriate a burrow a foot or so deep for hibernation through the colder months. 

Omnivorous, the diurnal western ornate box turtle feeds on a range of reptiles, crayfish, insects, worms, eggs, carrion, berries, and succulent plants (including prickly pear cactus pads and fruit). It may scavenge for food by digging with its clawed front legs through the dung of the larger grazing animals. It may even consume mushrooms that would poison a human, who should, therefore, not eat the flesh of the western ornate box turtle. While it will drink (and even swim) if it’s near water, it meets most of its liquid needs from its diet. 

Life Cycle

The turtle mates in the spring or fall. The female can store sperm and produce several egg clutches over several years from a single mating. She may also effectively store a clutch, awaiting optimum conditions for laying the eggs. She digs a shallow nest in moist, well drained soil, producing her clutch of two to eight eggs in mid- to late spring. She then abandons the nest, leaving the coming hatchlings to fend for themselves.  

The turtle, with its several siblings, hatches during midsummer. About the size of a thumb tip and a product of parental abandonment, it may remain close to its comforting birth nest through its first fall and winter season. If it survives the trials of hunger, predation and seasonal extremes, it will reach sexual maturity, its shell fully hardened, at seven to ten years of age. With good luck, it may live several decades. Under ideal conditions, it could even, according to the Smithsonian National Zoological Park and other authorities, live for a century or more. 

Life’s Hazards

The turtle, especially when young and vulnerable, may fall prey to any of several animals or reptiles, but it has also become a victim of development, road construction, increased traffic and personal collection. (For example, I recently rescued a western ornate box turtle from the curb of a busy city street it intended to cross.) The turtle has become a protected species in some locations.

The turtle faces a difficult time recovering from environmental stress. When its population has been depleted, the slow-moving turtle – which, individually, has a range of only a few acres – may have a hard time finding a mate and replenishing its numbers. 

Western Ornate Box Turtle face to face, with greenish head suggesting a male.

Western ornate box turtle face to face, with greenish head suggesting a male.

The Western Ornate Box Turtle As a Pet

While the western ornate box turtle has become a coveted pet, a collected wild one will almost certainly fare poorly in captivity. Within a short time, it may suffer from infections, dehydration and malnutrition, showing symptoms such as gasping, swollen eyes, a white tongue and a runny nose. 

A captive-bred hatchling, by contrast, often proves much more adaptable. It can thrive in a well-fenced outdoor space equipped with logs or flat stones for hiding places, loose soil or leaf litter for burrowing, and shade and shallow water for a cool summer retreat. It can be fed, preferably in a sheltered location, some cat or dog foods, commercially available insects, and some fruits and vegetables. Its chances for long-term survival are enhanced if its owner has the knowledge to meet its needs. 

Interesting Facts

  • The female western ornate box turtle may lay several hundred eggs during her lifetime, but, usually, only a bare handful will survive to adulthood. 
  • A western ornate box turtle collected in its home range then released in another range will try instinctively to return to its birthplace, often meeting hazards (for instance, a busy street) that will jeopardize its chances for survival. 
  • The turtle produces a growth ring each year on each of the scutes of its carapace, so its age can be estimated by counting the rings. 
  • The western ornate box turtle appears on The Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) list of threatened species. 
  • Another box turtle species, the Terrapene Carolina, with four subspecies, occurs in the eastern United States. One of the eastern box turtles has appeared on a postage stamp, according to authority Michael J. Connor. 



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