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How to Care for Your Ornate Box Turtle

How to Care for Your Ornate Box Turtle

Ornate box turtles (Terrapene ornata ornata) are small to medium-sized, terrestrial turtles native to the American Midwest. They generally prefer plains, prairies, and open woodlands for habitat, often with sandy soil.

Ornate box turtles are generally 4-6” long, and despite being called “turtles,” they’re quite tortoise-like in appearance. They have a domed shell, stumpy legs, and a hinged plastron. They usually have a dark brown to black base color, with a radiating pattern of yellow stripes on each scute, and many individuals have an additional line down the center of the shell. The legs and face are ornamented with yellow, orange, and/or red markings.

Unlike eastern box turtles, ornate box turtles do not make good beginner-level pet reptiles. However, when they receive the proper care, they can live at least 40 years. Captive-bred ornate box turtles are likely to be healthier and live longer than their wild-caught counterparts.

Note: Box turtles may be very common in the US, but they aren’t easy pets! If you want a pet box turtle, purchase one from a breeder or adopt one from a rescue or your local classifieds. Never take box turtles from the wild! Furthermore, keep in mind that box turtles are illegal to keep in some parts of the US.

How much space do ornate box turtles need?

A single ornate box turtle should have no less than 8 square feet of floor space, and preferably more. Like most terrestrial chelonians, they are poor climbers and as such floor space is the most important consideration for an enclosure. Because of their humidity requirements, they can be kept in a “tortoise table,” but they will still require access to a humid microclimate.

It is best to keep your ornate box turtle in a 4’ x 4’ or larger outdoor enclosure, if your local climate permits. The walls of the pen should be at least 18” tall, and extend at least 12” into the ground to prevent escape via burrowing. Cap the corners and/or walls of the enclosure with overhanging shelves to prevent escape via climbing. You will also need to install a sturdy lid of chicken wire or similar to keep out predators.

Ornate box turtles are generally considered solitary creatures, so it’s best not to house more than one of them per enclosure.

Do ornate box turtles need UVB?

Yes. Aside from helping provide a day/night cycle and an infinite supply of vitamin D, UVB is also essential to your turtle’s overall health. The best UVB bulbs for ornate box turtles are:

  • Arcadia T5 HO 12%
  • Zoo Med T5 HO Reptisun 10.0

The bulb should be half the length of the enclosure and mounted in a high-quality reflective fixture such as Arcadia or Vivarium Electronics. This fixture should be mounted 17-18” above the top of the turtle’s shell in the basking area, inside the enclosure.

Since box turtles are diurnal (day-active), it’s a good idea to add a strong 6500K LED or T5 HO fluorescent grow light to further illuminate the enclosure and better simulate daylight.

All lighting should be on for 14 hours/day during summer and 10 hours/day during winter. This simulates natural seasonal cycles and may stimulate healthier hormonal rhythms.

If your box turtle is being housed outside and has access to direct sunlight, artificial lighting of any kind is not required.

What basking temperatures do ornate box turtles need?

Ornate box turtles should have a basking air temperature of 90-95°F, with a cool/shaded area on the other side of the enclosure between 70-80°F. Temperatures should be measured with at least two digital probe thermometers.

Heat your turtle’s enclosure with a 75w halogen heat lamp placed on one side of the enclosure, mounted at roughly the same height as the UVB lamp. If the lamp is too warm, reduce the heat with a plug-in lamp dimmer. If the lamp is too cool, you will need a higher-wattage bulb. Do not use ceramic heat emitters (CHEs), heat mats, red bulbs, or blue bulbs, as these are not as effective. All heating should be turned off at night.

If you are keeping your ornate box turtle outdoors, make sure air temperatures never exceed 85°F, as these turtles overheat easily. At the very least, make sure they have access to a shaded area and a shallow water dish for cooling off. They can tolerate nighttime temps as low as 50°F. If you live in an area that gets cooler than this during part of the year, you will need to make accommodations for annual hibernation.

What humidity levels do ornate box turtles need?

Ornate box turtles should have an average humidity of 40-50%. This species is more tolerant of dry conditions than the eastern box turtle, but keeping them too dry will make them sick. Hatchlings are particularly sensitive to dehydration and should be kept at 60-70% instead. Humidity should be measured by a digital probe hygrometer with the probe in the middle of the enclosure.

To help maintain correct humidity levels, you can occasionally spray down the substrate with a spray bottle. It’s also a good idea to provide a humid hideout lined with moistened substrate or sphagnum moss and placed in the middle to cool end of the enclosure.

If you are housing your ornate box turtle outdoors, providing a damp compost pile of chemical-free leaves and grass clippings for them to root around and burrow into will be appreciated. Sprinkle it with water as needed to prevent it from drying out during summer. It also helps to occasionally hose down part of the pen.

What substrate is good for ornate box turtles?

Substrate covers the floor of your enclosure and helps make the setup more attractive, but it also helps maintain higher humidity levels and provides something for your turtle to dig into as desired. 

It’s ideal to use a substrate that imitates what ornate box turtles naturally live on in the wild: sandy soil. It should have small particles, drain well, and be loose enough to dig in. We recommend a mixture of 60% clean topsoil and 40% play sand for ornate box turtles. However, for best results, outdoor enclosures should offer areas of various different types of substrates for optimum thermoregulation and hydroregulation.

Substrate should be at least 4” deep (preferably 12”) and completely replaced every 3-6 months, depending on depth. Remove poop and urates daily, along with contaminated substrate.

What décor can you use in an ornate box turtle enclosure?

It’s terribly boring for a reptile to be stuck in an enclosure with nothing in it except substrate and food/water bowls. It doesn’t matter how big the enclosure is if you don’t put things in it for your pet to use and interact with. 

Here are some décor ideas that are appropriate for ornate box turtles:

  • additional hiding places/burrows
  • large hollow logs
  • terra cotta pots
  • live, edible plants and shrubs
  • large, flat stones

What do ornate box turtles eat?

Ornate box turtles are omnivorous, which means that they need both plant and animal matter in their diet. For best health, strive for a balance of roughly 45% plants and 55% low-fat animal protein.

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

Young and growing box turtles younger than 5 years old should be fed daily, while box turtles older than 5 years should be fed every other day. For best results, offer food first thing in the morning.


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 meal. Alternatively, you can dust with a multivitamin and offer a cuttlebone for nibbling as needed.


Of course, don’t forget a water bowl for your pet to drink from! Box turtles like to soak, so it’s best to offer a shallow “puddle” of water for them to soak in and drink from (cat litter trays work well for this). Change the water daily and scrub the bowl with a reptile-safe disinfectant weekly, or whenever it becomes soiled.

Do ornate box turtles like to be handled?

Few reptiles actually “like” to be held, but ornate box turtles generally tolerate human interaction well when bred in captivity. They don’t like to be held, though. Instead, try hand-feeding and gentle petting to bond with your turtle. Many pet box turtles learn to recognize their keepers and will come running for food.

If you have to grab your turtle, avoid grabbing it from above, as that will scare it. Instead, approach from the side and scoop from below and keep the interaction as brief as possible.

*This care sheet contains only very basic information. Although it’s a good introduction, please do further research with high-quality sources to obtain additional information on caring for this species.

"Ornate Box Turtle (Terrapene ornata)" by 2ndPeter is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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