Arizona Game and FIsh Department - Managing Today for Wildlife Tomorrow: Arizona Game and Fish Department

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Ornate Box Turtle Watch
box turtle
Photo by Ian Murray.

Little is known about historical or current populations of Arizona’s ornate box turtles, because, put simply, box turtles are secretive and difficult to find. Finding box turtles in the wild is haphazard at best, and is often simply a matter of being in the right place at the right time.

Unfortunately, there is some evidence that suggests the ornate box turtle in Arizona, along with other North American box turtle species nationwide, may be in decline, possibly a result of habitat destruction, habitat fragmentation, and over-collection from the wild. Prior to 2005, there was a possession limit of four ornate box turtles from the wild.  In response to the apparent decline, the Arizona Game and Fish Department closed the season on ornate box turtles in 2005, making it illegal to collect them from the wild.

Gathering data on box turtles is important so that biologists can make informed management decisions. The Arizona Game and Fish Department has developed the Ornate Box Turtle Watch so that members of the public can be our "eyes" in the field by reporting any observations of wild box turtles.  This “citizen scientist” approach relies on data gathered from chance encounters by the people driving, hiking, birding, or other watchable wildlife activities in box turtle habitat in southeastern Arizona, where the species is found.

How to Participate in the Ornate Box Turtle Watch
The Arizona Game and Fish Department is asking for your help in monitoring box turtle populations by collecting simple location and weather data for any box turtle you encounter in Cochise County, and parts of Graham, Gila, Pima, Pinal, and Santa Cruz counties.

How to find box turtles
Preferred box turtle habitats include Semidesert Grassland, Chihuahuan Desertscrub, and Madrean Evergreen Woodland, but they can also be found in Sonoran Desertscrub.

Some good places to find box turtles are also good places to hike, bird, and view Arizona’s watchable wildlife in desert grasslands, including many of our public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and U.S. Forest Service.

Box turtle annual activity peaks from mid-July through September, during the monsoon season. Their activity is triggered by rain, which brings them out of their burrows in search of food and mates. They prefer temperatures below 80°F, and relative humidity of at least 50%; for this reason they are often active in the mornings and evenings, when they can be seen crossing roads.

What to do if you encounter a box turtle:
You can submit box turtle data by filling out an observation form (one form for each box turtle, please), which is a PDF that requires Adobe Reader to view and edit (download here for free).  Simply type in the requested data, print the form, and mail it to the address on the bottom of the form, along with any photographs.  If you have Adobe Professional, you can type in the data and save the form, then e-mail it to the Turtles Project.  To view a report of the Ornate Box Turtle Watch data that has been submitted through 2010, click here

If you know you are going to be hiking, viewing Arizona’s watchable wildlife, or driving in box turtle habitat within the species’ range (see distribution map, right), download and print off a few forms so you are ready to collect data on any box turtles you might encounter.

Please also download, print off, and fill in a volunteer registration form (you only need to fill this out one time; disregard if you have filled one out in the past) and a volunteer time sheet. This allows us to keep track of volunteer time spent towards the project, which qualifies us for Federal match funding for our projects.



Distribution of the ornate box
turtle in Arizona. Click image
to enlarge.

box turtle


What's wrong with relocating or bringing home a box turtle? 

Moving or bringing home a box turtle from the wild is not only illegal in Arizona; it also hurts conservation efforts and is detrimental to wild populations. When you remove a turtle (or any animal, for that matter) from the wild and bring it into captivity, that individual is no longer able to produce offspring and contribute to the population, and is considered “biologically dead."

Moving a turtle from where you find it to a location that you think may be a superior habitat is harmful as well. Turtles spend their entire lives within an area the size of a football field; if moved to a new area they may not be able to find adequate food, water and shelter and will likely die. In addition, turtles have strong homing instincts; when you move a turtle from the only area it knows, it will likely try to navigate back, which could put it at risk of crossing many roads in the process.


The data requested for the Ornate Box Turtle Watch will not require you to handle the turtle. Remember that box turtles are protected in Arizona, so picking one up is illegal, and more importantly, it could be detrimental to its survival. Box turtles often void the contents of their bladder when disturbed (such as when picked up by humans), which can lead to dehydration and possibly death for a wild animal that lives in the desert. The only time you may handle a wild box turtle in Arizona is to move it off the road; but remember to only stop for a box turtle on the road if it is safe for you to do so – be observant of oncoming traffic and availability of road shoulders.

If you encounter a box turtle outside its native range, for example, within the Tucson city limits, anywhere in Maricopa County, or the northern or western parts of Arizona, this turtle is likely someone's escaped pet and does not belong in the wild. Please do not report these box turtle encounters to the Ornate Box Turtle Watch Project; instead, contact your regional Arizona Game and Fish Department office for information on what to do.

How to identify a box turtle

The ornate box turtle is a small (up to about 6”) land turtle with yellow, radiating lines on its shell. These lines may fade as the turtle ages. It has a hinge on the plastron that allows it to close its shell completely, hence the common name “box” turtle.

The only other land turtle native to Arizona is the desert tortoise, which has a uniformly greenish-brown shell without any yellow radiating lines, and can grow up to 15” in length. The desert tortoise is not able to close its shell completely, and has distinct growth lines on its carapace.


Distinguishing between male and female box turtles
Fortunately it is possible to distinguish between male and female box turtles without handling them, which is illegal.  Females usually have brownish-yellow eyes and shorter tails than males. Male box turtles usually have red eyes, an elongated, curving nail on the inside toe of each hind foot, and longer tails than females.


  male   female  
  Note the red eyes of this male box turtle.
Photo by Thomas R. Jones
  Female box turtles, like the one above, have
brownish-yellow eyes. AGFD photo
For additional information email Cristina Jones at


- Ornate Box Turtle Watch Observation Form
Did You Know?
Related AZGFD Links
- 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
  Places to Watch for Box Turtles
- San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area
- Willcox Playa Wildlife Area
- Whitewater Draw Willife Area
- Chiricahua National Monument
- Leslie Canyon National Wildlife Refuge
External Links
- Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (PARC)
- Southwest PARC
- NatureServe

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