Ornate Box Turtle

Terrapene ornata


Photo of an ornate box turtle walking.
The ornate box turtle usually has four hind toes. Its high-domed shell is usually brown with yellow lines.
MDC Staff

Emydidae (basking, marsh, and box turtles) in the order Testudines (turtles)


This small, colorful turtle has a domed upper shell and a hinged lower shell. The upper shell is usually smooth or flattened along the top, without a ridge, and is normally brown with numerous yellow lines radiating from the center of each individual plate. A yellow stripe often runs down the top. The lower shell is brown with distinct yellow spots and blotches. The head and limbs are brown or black with yellow spots and blotches. There are normally four toes on each hind leg.

Similar species: The three-toed box turtle usually has three toes on each hind leg, a ridge along the center of the top shell, and the top shell is usually olive or olive-brown with faint yellow or orange lines radiating from the center of each plate. It is more of a woodland species than the ornate box turtle and is found statewide except for extreme northern and northwestern portions.


Upper shell length: 4-5 inches (adult).


Photo of two boys with an ornate box turtle.
Children With Ornate Box Turtle
The ornate box turtle is colorful and harmless. It can shut itself up in its boxlike shell.


Photo of an ornate box turtle with its arms drawn in.
Ornate Box Turtle
Ornate box turtle

Ornate Box Turtle-20190505-2121.jpeg

A turtle extends its neck to look out over grass in a lawn. Its shell is patterned with yellow stripes and spots.
A turtle walking through grass in Stanton MO.


Photo of an ornate box turtle.
Ornate Box Turtle
The ornate box turtle is a fairly common resident of Missouri’s native prairies and grasslands, including pastures, open woods, and glades.

Ornate Box Turtle

Ornate Box Turtle
Ornate Box Turtle
Ornate Box Turtle in a yard in Columbia, MO
Habitat and conservation

This species is a fairly common resident of Missouri’s native prairies and grasslands, including pastures, open woods, and glades. Thousands of box turtles are killed on roads by vehicles. Overwintering burrows can prove inadequate during hard winters, and many turtles are starved or killed by humans trying to keep them as pets. Leave turtles in the wild, follow the speed limit, and keep your eyes on the road.


Although 90 percent of this turtle’s diet is composed of insects, particularly grasshoppers, beetles, and caterpillars, ornate box turtles also eat a small amount of plant matter, especially berries and tender shoots.

Ornate Box Turtle Distribution Map
Distribution in Missouri

Statewide, except for the southeastern corner of the state; it is more common in the western and northern parts of Missouri.


Turtles have been generally declining statewide, mainly due to loss of habitat.

Missouri's subspecies of ornate box turtle is the subspecies Terrapene ornata ornata, which is officially called the plains box turtle. The other North American subspecies, the desert box turtle (T. o. luteola), occurs only in the desert southwest. The two might not be different enough to be considered separate subspecies.

Life cycle

Ornate box turtles become active in late March. Courtship and mating are most common in the spring; it tapers off in summer and can resume in early autumn. The female lays eggs in exposed areas with loose soil or sand, digging a shallow hole with her hind limbs and depositing eggs. A clutch is usually 2–8 eggs, which hatch 2–3 months later. There are 1–2 clutches per season. Box turtles dig into leaf litter and soil and go dormant to survive winter.

Human connections

Of all the reptiles, turtles are the most admired by humans for their symbolic characteristics of slow, steady progress, longevity, and resilience as well as for their unique body form. They can live to be 50 or even 80 years old.

Ecosystem connections

Even though adult box turtles are defended by their shells, the eggs and young provide food for many predators. Hatchlings are only about 1 inch long and are especially vulnerable.