The ornate box turtle (Terrapene ornata ornata) is a 4.5-6” long species of terrestrial turtle primarily native to the midwestern United States. They can most often be found in plains, prairies, and open woodlands with sandy soil.
Ornate box turtles generally have a dark brown to black base color with yellow striations on each scute. They often feature a yellow line down the middle of the shell as well. Males can often be identified by their red eyes. Although technically turtles, ornate box turtles have highly domed shells with a hinged plastron that “seals” them inside when they feel threatened (thus the name “box” turtle).
Ornate box turtles are more difficult to keep than other box turtles. However, with appropriate care, they are likely to have a lifespan of 40+ years. For best health, purchase your box turtle from a reputable breeder, rather than buying a wild-caught individual.
Minimum terrarium size for ornate box turtles
The minimum acceptable enclosure size for an ornate box turtle is 8 sq feet of floor space. Because ornate box turtles tolerate lower humidity levels, it’s possible to keep them in a large terrarium or a “tortoise table” setup.
That being said, an outdoor pen is the best way to keep an ornate box turtle if your local climate allows — even if you can only keep your turtle outdoors for part of the year. This should measure at least 4’ x 4’ (preferably larger), with walls at least 18” high and extending at least 12” into the ground to prevent escape. The corners and/or walls should be capped to further discourage attempts to climb out. Finally, you will need a sturdy mesh lid to deter would-be predators.
Cohabitation (housing multiple box turtles in one enclosure) is not recommended.
Do ornate box turtles need UVB?
Yes, ornate box turtles require regular exposure to UVB light to maintain good health. The best UVB bulbs for ornate box turtles are:
- Arcadia T5 HO 12%
- Zoo Med T5 HO Reptisun 10.0
Your UVB bulb should be half the length of the enclosure, mounted in a reflective Arcadia or Vivarium Electronics fixture, and placed 17-18” above the top of the turtle’s shell in the basking area. The fixture should be inside of the enclosure, not outside.
Since ornate box turtles are a diurnal species, it’s helpful to also install a 6500K LED or T5 HO fluorescent grow light in the enclosure for additional illumination.
Lamps should be on for 14 hours/day during summer and 10 hours/day during winter. This is likely to boost your turtle’s long-term health by encouraging natural hormonal rhythms.
If your box turtle is being housed outside and has access to direct sunlight, artificial lighting is not required.
Best temperature for ornate box turtles
Like other reptiles, ornate box turtles are cold-blooded, which means that they rely on external temperatures to manage their own body temperature and metabolism. A reptile’s enclosure should offer a range of temperatures to allow them to thermoregulate effectively.
Specifically speaking, ornate box turtles should have a basking temperature between 90-95°F. On the other side of the enclosure, the temperature should be between 70-80°F. These temperatures should be measured with at least two digital probe thermometers. Heating should be turned off at night.
Provide heat for your box turtle with a halogen flood heat bulb mounted in a ceramic socket fixture. Do not use ceramic heat emitters (CHEs), red bulbs, or blue bulbs, as these are not as effective.
If you are housing your box turtle outdoors, make sure air temperatures never exceed 85°F, as these turtles overheat easily. Providing ready access to shade and a shallow tray of water can help prevent overheating. Box turtles can tolerate nighttime temps as low as 50°F, so nighttime heating should not be necessary. When temperatures do drop below this temperature, you will need to prepare your turtle for hibernation.
Best humidity levels for ornate box turtles
Adult ornate box turtles need an average humidity of 40-50%, while hatchlings (which are vulnerable to dehydration) need 60-70%. There should always be a humid hide on the cool side, lined with moistened sphagnum moss or substrate. Humidity should be measured via digital probe hygrometer, with the probe placed in the middle of the enclosure.
Increase humidity by misting the enclosure with a pressure sprayer as needed. Mist first thing in the morning and then again at night if needed. Pouring water directly into the substrate also helps with maintaining high humidity.
If you are housing your box turtle outdoors, humidity should not be much of an issue as long as you don’t live in a particularly wet climate. Just make sure to provide free access to a humid hideout and shade. For best results, create a compost pile of moistened, chemical-free leaves and grass clippings for the turtle to burrow into as desired.
Best substrate for ornate box turtles
Providing a thick layer of naturalistic substrate (“bedding”) will help maintain correct humidity levels and also provide something for your turtle to dig in as desired. We recommend using a mixture of 60% clean topsoil and 40% play sand for substrate. If you are housing your box turtle outdoors, provide areas of different types of substrate (sand, mulch, leaf litter, stone, soil, grass, etc.) for more effective thermoregulation.
Substrate should be at least 4” deep (preferably 12”) and completely replaced every 3-6 months depending on depth and enclosure size. Remove poop and urates daily, along with contaminated substrate. Substrate does not need to be removed from outdoor enclosures.
How to decorate a ornate box turtle enclosure
An empty terrarium makes for a bored turtle, reducing its quality of life. Keep your pet entertained and engaged with its environment with the strategic use of décor items that encourage it to exercise natural behaviors!
Here are some ideas to get you started:
- piles of leaf litter
- additional hiding places/burrows
- large hollow logs
- live, edible plants and shrubs
- large, flat stones
The more stuff you add, the more functional your enclosure is likely to become!
What to feed to a ornate box turtle
Ornate box turtles are omnivorous, which means that they need both plant- and animal-based foods in order to get the right nutrition. For best health, offer a balance of 45% plants and 55% low-fat animal protein.
Young and growing turtles younger than 5 years old should be fed daily, while turtles older than 5 years should be fed every other day. For best results, offer food first thing in the morning.
Protein sources for ornate box turtles: cockroaches, earthworms, mealworms, superworms, snails, millipedes, grasshoppers, crickets, moths, hornworms, silkworms, black soldier fly larvae, darkling beetles, pinky mice, quail chicks, wet cat food
Safe vegetables for ornate box turtles: cactus pads, kale, collard greens, turnip greens, mustard greens, dandelion greens + flowers, watercress, broccoli, escarole, swiss chard, parsley, spinach, endive, romaine lettuce, hibiscus leaves + flowers, nasturtium, honeysuckle, squash, grated carrot
Safe fruits for ornate box turtles: grapes, blackberries, cherries, strawberries, plums, apples, persimmons, cantaloupe, mulberries, tomatoes
You will also need calcium and vitamin supplements to prevent your turtle from developing a potential deficiency. We recommend Repashy Calcium Plus LoD, lightly dusted on each protein item. Alternatively, you can dust with a multivitamin powder and keep a cuttlebone in the enclosure at all times for the turtle to nibble as needed.
Of course, don’t forget a water bowl! Ornate box turtles like to soak, so you will need a shallow “puddle” of water for them to soak in and drink from. Change the water daily and scrub the dishes weekly with a reptile-safe disinfectant, or whenever it becomes soiled with feces.
How to handle your ornate box turtle
Reptiles generally don’t appreciate petting and handling in the same way that dogs and cats do. That being said, ornate box turtles generally tolerate human interaction pretty well! If you have to pick up your turtle, be gentle and try to pick it up from the side or below rather than from above. Handling should be minimized, but they do tend to appreciate gentle scratches and treats.
*This care sheet contains only very basic information. Although it’s a good introduction, please further your research with high-quality sources. The more you know, the better you will be able to care for your pet!
"Ornate Box Turtle (Terrapene ornata)" by 2ndPeter is licensed under CC BY 2.0