Geographical Range Mexico and most of the United States between the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi River, ranging southwest into the Sonora Desert and north up to South Dakota and Wisconsin
Habitat Prairies, forests and glades
Scientific Name Terrapene ornata
Conservation Status Near threatened
Zoo Location Children's Zoo

One Fancy Reptile

The ornate box turtle, also known as the Western box turtle, has a domed, round or oval carapace (upper shell) that is dark brown to reddish-brown, often with a yellow stripe running down the center. Box turtles get their name from a special hinge on the bottom part of their shell (the plastron) that allows them to withdraw their head and feet or "box" up as a form of protection against predators. The fairly small head of the ornate box turtle is brown to green in color, with yellow spots and yellow jaws; the limbs and tail are dark brown, also with some yellow spotting.

Male or Female?

Male and female ornate box turtles can be distinguished by the larger size of the female and the color of the irises. Males have red eyes; females have yellowish-brown eyes. Male turtles also have longer, thicker tails than females and bear an enlarged claw on their hind feet that is used during mating.

Nuts About Bugs

In the wild, ornate box turtles feed mainly on insects, including beetles, caterpillars and grasshoppers, but they will also eat berries and carrion.

Turtle Tricks

Box turtles, like most reptiles, are ectothermic (cold-blooded) and regulate their body temperature by basking in the sun during the cooler morning and evening hours, while seeking shade during hotter times of day. In October, ornate box turtles begin to enter brumation (hibernation), when they move into sheltered ravines and wooded areas. Some dig their own burrows, often after rains when the ground is softened, or they use burrows excavated by other turtles or mammals, where they will remain until they emerge in March or April. The lifespan of ornate box turtles is between 32-37 years.

Turtles in Trouble

Ornate box turtles are declining due to habitat loss, road mortality and other human-induced causes.

St. Louis Box Turtle Project

Initiated in the spring of 2012, the St. Louis Box Turtle Project focuses on increasing awareness of the threats facing box turtles, engaging citizens in saving turtles and increasing available scientific information to help inform box turtle conservation. To begin this pilot project, 20 turtles (mainly ornate box turtles and three-toed box turtles) were fitted with radio tags (VHF) that emit unique frequencies so they can be tracked. Follow the project on Facebook.