COMMON NAME (SCIENTIFIC NAME)Terrapene ornate
DIETInsects, spiders, worms, carrion, veggies
RANGEGrasslands of South Dakota through Illinois and southward to Arizona and Texas
HABITATPrairies, forests and glades
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Program and General Information
The Western Box Turtle, or Ornate Box Turtle, is a species of turtle that typically inhabits the terrestrial, prairie, or grasslands regions of the Midwestern United States. They range from 4-5 inches in length and are characterized by their dome-like, dark brown shell with flashy yellow lines stemming from the center (hence the name Ornate!). Western box turtles are omnivores that enjoy eating a variety of insects, vegetables, greens, and fruit. Mating season occurs in the spring, with females laying 1-2 clutches per year, each consisting of 1-8 eggs.
Incubation lasts 70-days, and newborn turtles are typically around 3cm when hatched. Maturity occurs between 7-8 years. This species faces challenges from human activities, including agriculture, urbanization, and the pet trade.
In the wild, the Western box turtle’s diet consists mainly of insects (such as grasshopers, beetles, and caterpillars), spiders, worms, carrion and berries.
Habitat and Range
Western box turtles are found in central and western United States and the adjoining areas of northern Mexico. You can find them from the Rocky Mountains to the Mississippi, in the Sonora Desert and northwards up to South Dakota and Wisconsin. They prefer desert or semi-desert areas in an arid climate with high temperatures, low humidity, and cool soil, or in waterways within these areas. These animals may actually limit themselves to a range about the size of a football field if their habitat and resources do not fluctuate.
Western box turtles live on prairies and in deserts, depending on subspecies. It usually spends it whole life in a small area (less than a few acres). In the fall, the western box turtle will dig a shallow hole to hibernate in during the winter.
Common Physical Features
Western box turtles are a smaller species of turtle averaging in size from 4-5 inches; females are larger compared to males. The carapace, or top portion, of the shell is less domed and a bit flatter than that of other box turtle species. The coloration of the carapace is usually black or dark brown with yellow striping. The face and forelegs may have a reddish, dark brown, green, or grey coloring.
Females tend to be duller in color when compared to males. Males have brighter colors and reddish/orange eyes, while females are typically much duller and have yellow/brown eyes.
A turtle’s shell is actually a part of it’s body. The turtle’s ribs and backbone fuse together to form the shell. The shell is covered with a layer of protective plates called scutes. These scutes are made of keratin, the same stuff that makes up our nails and hair, and can be shed. Turtles shed their scutes for numerous reasons: as they grow, to replace damaged scutes, and to shed off any parasites or disease.
Adaptations: Box turtles are not your typical turtle. Most turtles are adapted to life underwater with flat, streamlined shells, webbed feet for swimming, and a primarily carnivorous diet. Box turtles, on the other hand, have domed shells, thicker limbs with claws for digging, and are more omnivorous, all of which allow for a more terrestrial lifestyle. So while they may be labeled as one, box turtles are actually a bad example of a typical turtle!
Box turtles also have a unique plastron, or bottom of the shell. Their plastron is actually hinged, which allows the turtle to close up completely inside their shell, hence the name “box” turtle. The domed shell allows the turtle to pull its limbs in and the hinged plastron will act like a trap door and shut the turtle inside. This will protect the box turtle from predators trying to claw or bite at it.
Box turtles have sharp beaks for tearing food items into smaller, more manageable bite-sized pieces. Their sharp claws allow then to dig in the dirt to find food and help them traverse their environment easier.
Behavior and Life Cycle
Box turtles are oviparous, meaning they lay eggs outside the body. They will typically lay 3-6 eggs, each of which are thin-shelled eggs. Unlike most species, the eggs are laid and left unguarded. Females of this species can store sperm for several years and produce fertile offspring up to four years after copulation.
Mating usually takes place in the spring. Each year, females will usually have 1-2 clutches of eggs, which consist of 1-8 eggs. These eggs are white, brittle, and incubate for 70 days. When hatched, they are about 3 cm in size. The nests for these eggs are in well-drained places and are not too deep, about 5-6 cm.
Most male western box turtles reach sexual maturity when their plastron is 10- 11 cm long. For females, the number is 11-13 cm. Males are usually 8-9 years old at this point, while females normally do not reach sexual maturity until they are 10-11 years of age.These turtles hibernate from October to March.
Together with Nature
Habitat destruction and fragmentation are a major concern for the box turtle populations and have put them at risk. Human activities, such as residential and commercial development, farming and ranching, construction of roads and railways, and fishing have all contributed to the decline of Western box turtle numbers.
What can we do?: If you see a box turtle on the road and would like to help it be sure you are moving the turtle in the direction that it was headed. These animals limit themselves to a range about the size of a football field and if you remove them from their home range they can become confused and disoriented and may not be able to find their way home.
Never remove an animal from the wild! Some well-meaning people will trap and relocate “pest” animals but the truth is, trapping rarely ends well for wildlife and is not a long term solution. While you might be thinking you are helping that animal, most people don’t realize the amount of care and time that goes in to caring for these animals, and removing them from their natural environment can be detrimental to the wild populations. If wild animals are not causing damage or posing danger, the best solution is to coexist! If you come across injured wildlife please call your local wildlife rehabilitation center as they are better equipped to handle and care for that animal.
The most important thing that we can do to help sustain their habitats is to “Leave No Trace”. Once you leave nature, no one should know that you’ve been there. This means bringing out anything that you’ve brought in. Additionally, leaving the environment unaltered is equally important.
Supporting wildlands and forests that are habitable to this species can help protect box turtles numbers from further declining.