Ornate Box Turtle Care Sheet

Ornate Box Turtle Care Sheet

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.

Do not steal wild turtles from the wild to keep as pets!

Minimum terrarium size for ornate box turtles

The minimum recommended 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. We do not recommend aquariums.

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”-24" 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. Box turtles are really great at climbing and digging. Finally, you will need a sturdy mesh lid to deter would-be predators.

Cohabitation (housing multiple box turtles in one enclosure) is generally not recommended. Small groups of females can be housed together, but you would need to watch very closely for any aggressive behavior and be prepared to separate right away and house in separate, large enclosures. Housing box turtles together can lead to severe injury or even death.

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:

Your UVB bulb should be about half the length of the enclosure, mounted in a reflective fixture, and placed about 17-18” above the top of the turtle’s shell in the basking area. The fixture is best inside of the enclosure, not outside, if possible.

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 12-14 hours/day during summer and 10-12 hours/day during winter. This is likely to boost your turtle’s long-term health by encouraging natural/seasonal 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.

Ornate box turtles should have a basking temperature between 85-90°F. Basking/surface temperature can be measure with a temperature gun. On the other side of the enclosure, the temperature should be between 70-80°F. The ambient temperatures can be measured with at least two digital probe thermometers. Each reptile may have different preferences and needs, so you may need to adjust these ranges up or down slightly to accommodate your pet better. It is good practice to monitor your animal and make adjustments as needed. Heating should be turned off at night.

Heat can be provided for your box turtle with a halogen flood heat bulb mounted in a ceramic socket fixture. We do not recommend 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 don't 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 do best with 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.

You can 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 on one side also helps with maintaining 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, you can 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 6” 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:

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. We recommend 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 so they have time in the sun to digest.

Protein sources for ornate box turtles: dubia roaches, earthworms, mealworms, superworms, millipedes, grasshoppers, crickets, moths, hornworms, silkworms, black soldier fly larvae, darkling beetles, pinky mice, quail chicks, wet cat food, ground beef heart, beef liver.

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 want 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!

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