Ornate Box Turtle (Terrapene ornata ornata)
Ornate box turtles are 4-6″/10-15cm long, terrestrial reptiles with a domed shell, short legs, and a uniquely hinged plastron that allows them to tightly seal themselves inside when they feel threatened (thus the term, “box” turtle). Coloring is generally dark brown to black, with a white to gold radiating pattern on each scute, and sometimes an additional line down the spine. The legs and face typically have yellow, orange, and/or red markings. Mature males can generally be distinguished from females by their red irises and longer tails.
Ornate box turtles are primarily native to the central United States, where they can be found in Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas, Wyoming, Missouri, and Illinois, as well as parts of Ohio, Wisconsin, and Indiana. They generally prefer semiarid habitats such as sandhills, prairies, and desert grasslands.
If you pay attention to providing excellent ornate box turtle care, your pet is likely to have a long lifespan, possibly up to 100 years!
These are products I personally recommend for setting up a functional ornate box turtle enclosure. Because the equipment you will need varies based on whether it is being housed indoors or outdoors, this shopping list is for setting up an indoor enclosure for adult ornate box turtle.
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- 5’L x 2.5’W x 2’H enclosure
- 90w Philips PAR38 Halogen Flood Bulb, x2
- Zoo Med Combo Deep Dome Dual Lamp Fixture
- Lutron Credenza plug-in lamp dimmer, x2
- 34″ T5 HO Arcadia 6% or Zoo Med Reptisun 5.0 UVB bulb
- 36″ Arcadia ProT5 or Vivarium Electronics T5 HO fixture
- 22″ Arcadia Jungle Dawn LED Bar, x2
- Zilla 24/7 Digital Power Center
- Zoo Med Digital Combo Thermometer Humidity Gauge, x2
- Exo Terra Mister
- 4 ft³ 60:40 sand/soil mix
- Exo Terra Tortoise Cave, x2
- Misc. décor
- hollow logs
- leaf litter
- edible, drought-tolerant live plants
- Exo Terra Feeding Dish, X-Large
- 12″ diameter plant saucer
- Repashy Superveggie
- Exo Terra Sepia Bones
Box turtles, like other reptiles, require an enclosure that is large enough to give them adequate opportunity to explore, forage, thermoregulate, and generally exercise natural behaviors. And this species is very active! They will use however much space you can give them. They are also terrestrial, which means that they are a ground-dwelling species, so floor space is more important than vertical space.
A good rule of thumb for housing box turtles is to use the following calculation, based on the animal’s expected adult length:
- Length = 10x adult length
- Width = 5x adult length
- Height = 3x adult length
Considering that ornate box turtles generally max out around 6″/15cm, the minimum recommended enclosure size for one ornate box turtle is 5’L x 2.5’W x 2’H, or 12.5 square feet of floor space. In metric, that’s 1.5m x 0.75m x 0.6m, or 1.16 square meters.
Indoors or Outdoors?
It’s generally agreed by experts that it’s ideal to house your box turtle outdoors whenever possible. The pen should be placed in a location that is not too wet, with access to both shade and sunshine at all times of day, and it should have well-draining soil. The wall must be at least 2′ tall and smooth enough to discourage climbing (concrete blocks work well), sunk at least 12″ into the soil to discourage burrowing escapes, and the top of the pen should covered with wide mesh (ex: chicken wire) to keep out potential predators. It’s also wise to install triangular caps at each of the pen’s corners to further prevent escape.
If you live in an area where it’s not appropriate to house your ornate box turtle outdoors year-round, you will need to have an appropriately-sized enclosure at the ready indoors. While you can buy an appropriately-sized enclosure custom, it’s most cost-effective at this point to build your own. I recommend checking out the Facebook group DIY Reptile Enclosures for advice.
Juvenile box turtles up to 4″ long should be housed in an indoor enclosure to promote optimum growth and health during this delicate phase of their lives. Here are some enclosures that are appropriate for housing young box turtles:
The enclosure may need to be customized to feature a 4-5″ tall opaque barrier on the front to discourage pacing behavior, which stems from stress.
Can multiple box turtles be housed in the same enclosure?
While it can be done, social behavior appears to be minimal in this species, so housing one box turtle per enclosure is likely to be just fine and possibly even ideal.
Lighting & UVB
Box turtles are diurnal, which means that they are most active during the day. This also means that they need exposure to bright light and UVB during the day to maintain good mental and physical health. Light sources should be left on for 14 hours/day during summer and 10 hours/day during winter to replicate natural seasonal rhythms.
If you are housing your pet outdoors, artificial lighting of any kind is not necessary.
UVB lighting can be tricky, because in order to get the right strength of UVB (measured by UV Index, or UVI), distance must be considered. To provide appropriate UVB to an ornate box turtle, you will need one Arcadia T5 HO 6% or Zoo Med T5 HO ReptiSun 5.0 in a reflective T5 HO fixture (preferably Arcadia or Vivarium Electronics brand for best performance). This bulb should be roughly half the length of the enclosure and placed on the warm side, close to the heat lamp(s).
If there is mesh between the lamp and your turtle, the basking area should place its back 13-14″/33-36cm below the lamp. If there is no mesh, the distance must be increased to 17-18″/43-46cm.
(This recommendation is an approximation. It is strongly recommended to use a Solarmeter 6.5 to determine the best placement to achieve a UVI of around 3.0 – 4.0 in the basking area.)
A UVB bulb isn’t bright enough to replicate daylight. To get a little closer to this goal, you will need to supplement with a bright, 6500K T5 HO fluorescent or LED lamp, long enough to span 3/4 to the full length of the enclosure. This is particularly important if you are using live plants, but it is also valuable for supporting your turtle’s general wellbeing.
Humans are warm-blooded, which means that our body temperature is regulated automatically. Turtles, however, are cold-blooded (poikilothermic), which means that they have to move between areas of different temperatures to regulate their body temperature. In the wild, box turtles warm up by basking in a sunny spot.
Indoors, you will need at least one halogen heat lamp to properly heat your turtle. If you are housing your pet in an outdoor pen, artificial heating should not be necessary. However, if nighttime temperatures dip below 50°F/10°C, you will need to provide a shelter with lightless heating such as a ceramic heat emitter or radiant heat panel set to 60°F/16°C. You will also need to bring your turtle indoors for part of the year if you live in an area with winter temperatures below 25°F/-4°C.
- Basking area temperature: 90-95°F / 32-35°C
- Cool zone temperature: 70-77°F / 21-25°C
Indoor heating should be turned off at night to allow for a nighttime temperature drop.
To create an evenly-heated basking area, you will need a 90w Philips PAR38 Halogen Flood Bulb (one for juveniles, at least two for adults) and one or two Zoo Med Deluxe Porcelain Clamp Lamp fixtures. If you notice that the basking area is too warm, dial it down with a plug-in lamp dimmer. If your basking area is too cool, you will need a higher-wattage bulb.
To measure the temperature of the basking area, you will need a digital probe thermometer with the probe placed on the basking surface. There should be another digital probe thermometer on the other side of the enclosure to monitor the cool end of the temperature gradient. Most reptile-branded digital probe thermometers work well for this purpose.
Ornate box turtles do well in slightly more arid conditions than other box turtles, but it’s best to still pay attention to the humidity levels in your indoor enclosure and make adjustments accordingly. Here are your targets for average humidity levels:
- Hatchlings: 60-70%
- Adults: 30-60%
You can monitor humidity levels with a digital probe hygrometer with the probe placed in the middle of the enclosure.
Whether you are housing your turtle indoors or outdoors, it must always have access to a humid hideout. This should be a cave or hide box placed on the cool end of the enclosure and lined with moistened substrate to create a humid microclimate.
To increase general humidity levels in the enclosure, use a handheld pressure sprayer to moisten the substrate and other surfaces first thing in the morning. Avoid spraying the turtle directly.
For ornate box turtles, it’s best to use a well-drained, naturalistic substrate that is similar to what is found in their native habitat. This substrate should be layered at least 4″ deep in indoor enclosures, and 12″ deep in outdoor enclosures.
Here are a few options:
- DIY semi-arid mix: 60% organic topsoil, 40% play sand
- Zoo Med Eco Earth
- Zoo Med Reptisoil
- Exo Terra Plantation Soil
New ornate box turtles should pass quarantine before naturalistic substrate is added to their enclosure.
Feces and urates should be removed daily, and contaminated substrate should be scooped out and replaced. Indoor substrate should be completely replaced once every 3-6 months, depending on how diligent you are about daily cleaning.
Decorations play a vital role in your ornate box turtle’s enclosure as environmental enrichment. Enrichment items encourage exercise, stimulate your pet’s natural instincts, and help promote overall wellbeing. And, of course, they make the enclosure look nicer! Without décor, your turtle’s enclosure is just a big box of dirt.
Aside from at least 2 hideouts/burrows/caves, here are some other items to consider: hollow logs, flat stones, dirt mounds, piles of leaf litter, and edible, drought-resistant plants work well as décor in an ornate box turtle enclosure. To determine what plants are safe to use in your enclosure, The Tortoise Table is an excellent resource. Tortoise seed mixes are also a good way to stock your enclosure with appropriate plants.
Arrange these items in a way that encourages your turtle to explore, and provides a variety of places to sleep or shelter in during the day.
Ornate box turtles are omnivorous, which means that they eat both plant and animal matter, depending on what’s available. Their diet should be roughly 50% animal matter and 50% plant matter. Young and growing ornate box turtles should be given as much as they can eat every day. Once they near adulthood, this should be reduced to every other day to prevent obesity.
Here is a list of appropriate protein-rich foods for ornate box turtles:
- black soldier fly larvae
- chicks (pre-killed)
- darkling beetles
- discoid roaches
- dubia roaches
- egg (cooked)
- mice (pre-killed)
- quail chicks (pre-killed)
- snails (captive-bred only)
Plant matter should also be made available, such as:
- cactus pads/fruit
- collard greens
- dandelion greens/flowers
- mushrooms (edible)
- mustard greens
- romaine lettuce
- sweet potato
The key to providing your pet with balanced nutrition is VARIETY! This is especially important with ornate box turtles, as they are known to get bored of eating the same thing quickly, and will refuse food. So provide as many different kinds of foods to your pet turtle as possible!
Food should always be offered on a plate or tray to prevent unnecessary ingestion of substrate.
To make sure your turtle is getting the right nutrients in its diet, it’s a good idea to sprinkle its food with Repashy Superveggie supplement powder. You will also need to provide a cuttlebone in the enclosure. Aside from being a good source of calcium, it also helps keep your turtle’s beak trimmed!
Your ornate box turtle should have access to clean drinking water at all times. They tend to foul the water quickly, so you will need to replace the water daily and give it a good scrub with animal-safe disinfectant weekly. A large flower pot saucer, sunk into the substrate for easy access, makes for a good water dish. The water should be no deeper than your turtle’s knees.
Generally speaking, turtles dislike handling and prefer to be left alone. However, this doesn’t mean that you can’t interact with your pet! Many box turtles learn to appreciate a gentle shell rub, and they can also learn to take food from your fingers or a pair of feeding tweezers.
When handling is necessary, scoop them up from below with your palm rather than grabbing them from above. This will help them not to panic. Then grasp the shell with two hands, supporting both the body and the legs. Keep a firm but gentle grip — falling can do serious damage to a turtle, and can even be fatal!
Always wash your hands thoroughly before and after handling your pet. When soap and water is not available, use a good hand sanitizer.
- Baines, F. M., Chattell, J., Dale, J., Garrick, D., Gill, I., Goetz, M., Skelton, T., & Swatman, M. (2016). How much UVB does my reptile need? The UV-Tool, a guide to the selection of UV lighting for reptiles and amphibians in captivity. Journal of Zoo and Aquarium Research, 1, 59. https://www.jzar.org/jzar/article/view/150/89
- Dodd, C. K. (2001). North American Box Turtles: A Natural History. University of Oklahoma Press.
- Ernst, C. H., & Lovich, J. E. (2009). Turtles of the United States and Canada (Second Edition, pp. 426–438). Johns Hopkins University Press.
- Franklin, C. J., & Killpack, D. C. (2009). Complete North American Box Turtle. ECO / Serpents Tale NHBD.
- Jessup, I. (2012, July 6). Ornate Box Turtle Care Sheet. Reptiles Magazine. https://www.reptilesmagazine.com/ornate-box-turtle-care-sheet/
- Medium UV Species. (n.d.). Arcadia Reptile. https://www.arcadiareptile.com/lighting/medium-uv-species/
- O, J. (n.d.). Ornate Box Turtle. Austin’s Turtle Page. https://austinsturtlepage.com/Care/cs-ornateboxie.htm
- Ornate Box Turtle – Terrapene ornata ornata |. (n.d.). Box Turtles. https://boxturtles.com/ornate-box-turtle/
- Ornate box turtles. (n.d.). Tortoise Trust Web. https://www.tortoisetrust.org/care/cornata.html
- Terrapene ornata: INFORMATION. (n.d.). Animal Diversity Web. https://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Terrapene_ornata/
The ReptiFiles Ornate Box Turtle Care Sheet is a simplified care summary, not a full ReptiFiles care guide. While I have done my best to ensure that the information contained is accurate, due to time constraints, the research behind ReptiFiles care sheets is not as thorough as the research involved with my full-length care guides. I strongly encourage readers to do their own research from high-quality, reputable sources outside of just this care sheet as part of preparing for your new pet reptile.