Ornate Box Turtle

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Although in the same family as the huge Galapagos tortoise, the ornate is only five inches long and has a hand painted look about it, thus the name. Conspicuous yellow dashes crest its dark brown or black carapace (upper shell) and radiate from the center of each shell segment down the sides like fine brush strokes. The ornate’s plastron (lower shell) is brown with radiating yellow lines, a characteristic that distinguishes ornates from all other box turtles. Adult males typically have a more solid colored head that can vary from slate blue to dark green to gold and have bright red eyes. The foreleg scales are often colored bright red, yellow, or orange. The males are equipped with a sharply curved first claw on their hind feet – used to grasp female during breeding. Females have lighter tan or faded yellow spots on a light brown head, and brown eyes. Jaws are often lined with pale yellow, the upper jaw being slightly notched at the front edge.


In Wisconsin, ornate box turtles are strictly associated with sandy soils, dry prairies and oak savannahs. They prefer southern and western exposures where temperatures are higher and soils are drier. This species requires deep sandy soil to burrow into for hibernation in the winter. Ornate box turtles will use oak savannahs and edges of oak woods in the summer, to avoid excessively warm temperatures.


Ornate box turtles are found from Indiana west to southern South Dakota and southeast Wyoming, south through Texas and into the coastal prairies of Louisiana. In Wisconsin, this species is limited to the southwestern part of the state, primarily in areas where broad deep sand deposits have settled out within the original Wisconsin River floodplain.

Life History

The ornate box turtle is the only strictly terrestrial (land dwelling) turtle species in Wisconsin. The high-domed shell serves as a helmet to shield its fleshy body from predators such as skunks, raccoons, opossums, foxes, raptors, and snakes.

When threatened, box turtles literally box themselves in. Tucking head and limbs inside, special hinges draw the plastron up tightly against the carapace. But, unfortunately, turtle shells are no defense against the wheels of automobiles or plow disks and these have taken their toll on ornate box turtle populations.

Box turtles eat a variety of foods found in their dry prairie habitat, including beetles, grasshoppers, caterpillars, carrion, berries, prickly pear cactus and other succulent vegetation. The ornate does not often drink water due to its efficient system for metabolizing liquid from the plant and animal material it eats.

Turtles are toothless but have sharp, horny jaws. The ornate may often hiss and bite if handled. Box turtles emerge from winter hibernation in early to late April. During hot weather they seek shade and are most active after rain. Ornate box turtles are slow to mature but may live 40 years or more. Males reach maturity at eight to nine years and females at ten to eleven. In the wild, mating can occur throughout the active season, but is generally most intense and successful in late summer. The male’s plastron (lower shell) is slightly concave to rest on the female’s domed shell. The male uses his recurved first claw on his hind feet to wedge between the female’s shells so she can’t shut him out during mating.

In June, female turtles dig nest holes in open sandy areas. They lay two to eight brittle, white eggs, then cover the nest, sweeping away any trace. Eggs incubate in the nest 59-70 days. Hatchlings are nickel sized and may overwinter before ever emerging, digging deeper below the nest chamber to avoid freezing.

Fall triggers hibernation, and ornates dig burrows with their front and hind feet, or occasionally use tunnels excavated by small mammals. Even during active months, box turtles take shelter in burrows on cool nights and hot days. In Wisconsin, ornates may burrow as much as 1.75 meters (5.5 ft) deep to avoid frost, although the average hibernation depth is about 1 meter (3.25 ft). For this reason, they are restricted to dry prairies or savannahs with loose sand that is easily burrowed into.

Current Status

Guarded only with its shell, the box turtle is an easy target for pet suppliers and casual collectors, both of which have taken their toll on population numbers. Humans are the most successful predator of adult ornate box turtles and are listed by several studies as the primary cause of decline in turtle populations. As the ornate’s habitat has become more fragmented by roads and development, deaths due to automobiles and losses due to pet collection have increased. The development of irrigation systems over the past 30 years has allowed much of the previously unproductive sandy soil along the lower Wisconsin River floodplain to be converted from dry prairie to productive agricultural land for corn soybeans, and potatoes and, is another major factor in the ornate’s endangered status.

Since being added to the original Wisconsin Endangered and Threatened Species List in l972, possession of ornate box turtles is by permit only for scientific research and educational purposes. Unfortunately, the laws protecting this species can be difficult to enforce, and pet collecting still drains the wild population. The ornate’s slow maturity and high hatchling mortality make recovery of its population numbers nearly impossible without human intervention. Left in the wild, a box turtle may produce more than 200 eggs in its lifetime, but in captivity they are not given the chance to contribute their offspring.

Research and Management

A recovery outline was developed for the ornate in 1992 and has been in the implementation phase. A landowner contact program established in 1992 revealed that ornates were once quite abundant as recently as the early 60’s but have been steadily declining since. The Bureau of Endangered Resources, along with the UW Madison Department of Zoology and Wisconsin Power and Light, began several studies in late 1992 which continue today to look at recovery strategies for this species. The most promising prospect is translocation. This is where researchers gather turtles from very small remnant populations and then transport them to a common site in hopes of building a larger population which is capable of reproducing and growing, using Wisconsin turtles. This method first involves “imprinting” turtles to the site. Imprinting is a process of teaching the animal to identify with its surroundings and learn that its new surroundings are home. This involves maintaining the animals in a large enclosure for a period long enough for them to go through at least one cycle of breeding and hibernation. Imprinted animals are less likely to wander  away from the site. The methods used for this are new, but experiments have proved to be highly successful thus far.

We are also working on a headstarting program which collects eggs from the wild ornate turtle burrows, incubates the eggs, and the young are raised in a controlled environment to an age where they are less vulnerable to predators. The “headstarted” young are then released into the wild and hopefully will have a greater chance of surviving to breeding age. This study will take years of experimenting before meaningful results will be available.

A third aspect of the recovery effort is looking at the potential of using northern Nebraska ornates to create new and viable populations in areas of Wisconsin where ornate populations have disappeared. To date, the Nebraska turtles show promise as they are surviving quite well in Wisconsin’s climate. We have not yet determined, however, if they will be able to successfully breed in Wisconsin. This recovery option would only be considered as a last resort to help Wisconsin’s ornates recover.

What You Can Do

Through public education, we can hopefully eliminate, or at least lessen, the demand in the marketplace for wild creatures that should be left in their native environments. Education about the prairie ecosystems of Wisconsin and their importance to many species will help the public to see these areas as more than just weeds and wastelands. This education, combined with community-based conservation programs, should help to provide extra protection for the ornate box turtle as the community becomes aware of their plight. Other programs, such as “turtle-crossing” areas and translocation of animals in high risk areas, may help to reduce mortality due to automobiles. You can help the box turtle most by leaving it in its natural habitat. The removal of even one individual of this endangered species can have a serious effect on the health of the entire remaining population.