Ornate Box Turtle

Photo of an ornate box turtle walking.
Scientific Name
Terrapene ornata
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).

Where To Find
Ornate Box Turtle Distribution Map

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

Media Gallery
Similar Species
About Reptiles and Amphibians in Missouri
Missouri’s herptiles comprise 43 amphibians and 75 reptiles. Amphibians, including salamanders, toads, and frogs, are vertebrate animals that spend at least part of their life cycle in water. They usually have moist skin, lack scales or claws, and are ectothermal (cold-blooded), so they do not produce their own body heat the way birds and mammals do. Reptiles, including turtles, lizards, and snakes, are also vertebrates, and most are ectothermal, but unlike amphibians, reptiles have dry skin with scales, the ones with legs have claws, and they do not have to live part of their lives in water.