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Ornate Box Turtle (Terrapene ornata)

adult male box turtle
Photo by Richard Fray.

Natural History

The ornate box turtle is a terrestrial turtle in the family Emydidae that is equipped with a high-domed carapace and a hinged plastron. This hinge allows them to close their shells completely when provoked by predators.  The carapace is brown with yellow stripes radiating from the center of the each scute. They grow to about 5.75 inches in length and can live 50-100 years. 

During dry periods they remain in burrows, either self-created ones or those of small mammals. They emerge in the morning and after rain to forage. The ornate box turtle is omnivorous; commonly consumed foods include insects, worms, and many kinds of vegetation, including cactus pads. 


This species exhibits sexual dimorphism; the male has a bluish head, red or orange eyes, a concave plastron, and a long, curving, inner hind claw. The yellow radiating stripes on the shell of males disappear with age.  Females have brown or yellow eyes and flat plastrons, and generally retain the yellow lines.


Box turtles can reproduce after they reach 7-8 years of age. After mating, females lay an average clutch of 2-3 eggs (up to 8 maximum) during the monsoon season. Hatchlings are dark in color with a yellow stripe down the center of the shell.     

Typical of older male desert box turtles, the yellow radiating lines on the shell have faded
on this individual. Photo by George Andrejko.

Note the brown eyes of this adult female ornate box turtle. Photo by Richard Fray.


The ornate box turtle is found throughout the central and western United States. In Arizona this species is represented by a subspecies called the desert box turtle (Terrapene ornata luteola). The desert box turtle is limited to the southeastern corner of Arizona, central and southern New Mexico, south to the northern part of Sonora, Mexico, and in southwestern Texas.    


In Arizona, ornate box turtles mainly inhabit semidesert grassland, but can also be found in Chihuahuan desertscrub, Madrean evergreen woodland, and Sonoran desertscrub (up to 7100 feet in elevation). They require loose soil for burrowing.

Semidesert grassland community, typical of ornate box turtle habitat in southeastern Arizona. Photo by Valerie Boyarski.

To date, there has been little research on the status of the ornate box turtle in Arizona. However, box turtle populations throughout the United States are thought to be in decline due to human-influenced landscape changes. Because of this concern, the Arizona Game and Fish Department's Turtles Project is initiating monitoring efforts in ornate box turtle habitat to determine baseline population levels and to develop management plans for the species. 

One of the major threats to box turtles is landscape level changes to their habitat, such as large-scale development and the creation of roads that cause habitat fragmentation and isolate populations. Other threats include mortality from automobiles and collection from the wild. Box turtles are often encountered crossing roads in suburban and rural areas in southeastern Arizona, especially during the monsoon season.  Unfortunately, many people mistakenly believe that a box turtle they encounter on the road can be helped by bringing it home. However, bringing a box turtle home means it must always remain in captivity, because a captive turtle can never be released back into the wild. Please leave wild box turtles in the wild; not only is it illegal to collect them, it hurts wild populations.

Box turtles often get hit by cars when they attempt to cross roads fragment their habitat. Photo by George Andrejko.

In Willcox, there is an annual box turtle race for which people often collect wild turtles from local roads. These events are harmful to box turtles for several reasons.  First, removing numerous box turtles, especially adult females, can have a severe impact on local populations because turtles are slow-growing and do not reproduce quickly. Additionally, after the race is over, many people do not release the turtle in the same area from which it was collected. A box turtle may live its entire life in an area no bigger than a football field. When it is released into an unknown area, it may become disoriented and wander in search of the area it knows, resulting in starvation or a risk of being hit by a car when crossing roads. Finally, when box turtles are held together in captivity for several days or weeks in anticipation of a race, the turtles can infect each other with diseases or parasites. If these turtles are released back into the wild after the race, they can infect wild populations with these pathogens. 

The specific impacts these threats have on ornate box turtle populations in Arizona still needs to be evaluated. 

Cautionary Measures

There is a closed season on ornate box turtles in Arizona. Per Arizona Commission Order 43, possession of ornate box turtles, Terrapene ornata, is prohibited, except for those legally held prior to January 1, 2005, when season closure went into effect. 

How You Can Help

Keep wild turtles wild. Do not collect a box turtle if you encounter one in the wild. This animal has lived its entire life in the wild, and by bringing it home you are dooming it to a life in captivity, because a captive turtle can never be released back into the wild. Removing a box turtle from the wild can severely affect local populations because turtles reproduce slowly in the wild. It is also illegal to remove a box turtle from the wild in Arizona.  

Keep captive turtles captive. Captive turtles released into the wild can severely jeopardize local wild turtle populations through the introduction of diseases and parasites. Also, captive box turtles released into the wild can displace individuals or populations of wild box turtles by competing for resources.  If you have a captive box turtle that you can no longer care for, contact the Phoenix Herpetological Society in the Phoenix area or the Arizona Game and Fish Department in other areas of the state. 

Participate in the Sponsor-a-Turtle program. The Arizona Game and Fish Department Turtles Project utilizes technical equipment such as radio-telemetry tags, GPS units, and hoop traps to survey and monitor turtle populations statewide. By donating to the Turtles Project, you will help project biologists purchase this gear so that they may continue to plan and implement conservation and management. Find out about the Sponsor-a-Turtle program here.

Practice responsible OHV use. Ornate box turtle habitat in Arizona is limited and is sensitive to degradation.  Using off-highway vehicles (OHVs) in unauthorized areas can result in loss and degradation of habitat through the degradation of native vegetation, spread of invasive plant species, and soil erosion. Please stay on roads and trails, and do not trample vegetation.

Watch and enjoy, but avoid contact. If you observe an ornate box turtle in the wild, it is best to let it continue on its way. Do not disturb it by picking it up. The one exception to this rule is if a turtle is in harm’s way trying to cross a road. If it is safe to do so, gently lift the turtle just high enough so its feet are just above the ground and transport it across the road in the direction it was heading.

Become a citizen scientist - participate in the Ornate Box Turtle Watch. The ornate box turtle is thought to be in decline in Arizona. Help the Arizona Game and Fish Department monitor this species by reporting any observations of wild box turtles in Arizona. Find out about the Ornate Box Turtle Watch.

box turtle
Male box turtle. Photo by George Andrejko.


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Did You Know?
A hunting license is required to capture many of Arizona’s reptile species, and a fishing license is required to capture many of Arizona’s amphibian species (combination hunting/fishing licenses are available).  Protected species, such as the ornate box turtle, are not allowed to be collected even with a license.  Click here for information on purchasing a license. 
Box Turtle Downloads line
NOTE: The following files are PDFs and require the free Adobe Acrobat Reader.
- Ecology and conservation of desert box turtles
- Reproduction in the desert box turtle
- Activity in the desert box turtle
AZGFD Turtle Pages
- Ornate Box Turtle Watch
- Desert tortoises
- Captive desert tortoise care
- What to do if you encounter a desert tortoise
- Mud turtles
- Painted turtles
- Nonnative turtles
Related AZGFD Links line
- Heritage Fund
- State Wildlife Grants
- Arizona Reptile and Amphibian Regulations
- Wildlife News
- Watchable Wildlife
- Nongame Species Management
- Living With Venomous Reptiles
- Sign up for AZGFD eNews
External Links
- Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum Box Turtle page
- Phoenix Herpetological Society
- Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (PARC)
- Southwest PARC
- Turtle and Tortoise Preservation Group
- Turtle Survival Alliance
- NatureServe

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