Box turtles are one of the most kept pet reptiles in the U.S. Unfortunately, once box turtles are taken from the wild, they can have trouble adapting to captivity that’s why proper care is essential for the long-term survival of these unique reptiles. The ornate box turtle is a unique turtle found in the sandy plains and grasslands and also in forests along the streams.
Unlike other turtles, this turtle species don’t spend much time in the water. During the summer, the ornate box turtle will look for water or dig into the sandy soil to regulate its body temperature and avoid dehydration. In the winter it will hibernate by digging a shallow hole so its habitat has to include places for burrowing. They will come out of hibernation in spring and will seek the shade if it’s too hot.
Description and physical appearance
The ornate box turtle is a very colorful turtle you would think a professional did a beautiful job on it. It has a doomed black or dark brown upper shell with yellow lines from the center of each shell segment down to the sides. It has dark gray skin with yellow and white spots and green spots on the male’s head. Its lower shell is brown with beautiful yellow lines. When it feels threatened, the box turtle will tuck its whole body inside its shell while special hinges draw its lower shell tightly against the shell to keep any fleshy part of its body away from predators.
Ornate box turtles live strictly on land and are omnivorous that only eat animals and plants found in their habitat. During the months that these turtles are active, they will take shelter in burrows to cool off during the day or night, but they’re most active when it rains. These turtles mature slowly and can live for 60 years or more.
The male and female are quite similar but some females may be slightly bigger than the males. The males also have a curved inner claw on its hind feet and his cloacal is a bit further back than that of the female. Has a more powerful and thicker tail with a reddish color on its legs and in some males, you will also find the red color on its jaw. The male is sexually mature when its lower shell or plastron is 10-12 cm long and 8-9 years old while the female is sexually mature when it’s 11-13 cm and 10-11 years old.
Caring for the ornate box turtle
The ornate box turtle is a very beautiful creature, but it can be one of the most difficult box turtle species to take care of as a pet. If you’re new at owning a box turtle, you should start with an Eastern or three-toed box turtle that makes better pets. However, if you have space, devotion, and time owning an ornate box turtle can be very rewarding.
What do ornate box turtles eat?
Like all box turtles, ornate box turtles are omnivorous and in the wild, they actively hunt and eat earthworms, grasshoppers, beetles, and crickets. They will also consume vegetation, mushrooms, and berries, however, in captivity you should provide a variety of assorted foods because they can become very picky eaters. Mealworms, roaches, earthworms, crickets, hard-boiled eggs, and dog food are excellent sources of protein. Mustard greens, berries, collard greens, melon, dandelion greens, and mushrooms form good vegetation. It’s also important that you provide a calcium source and a rich source of vitamin A so you can dust your turtle’s food with a vitamin and mineral supplement.
Some turtles are shy about feeding in the open, so you can place their food in a corner of their habitat or a sheltered area. Also, place the food in a flat or shallow bowl for easy reach and easier feeding. Some turtles are also messy eaters so you should feed them separately. You should feed the young turtles every day and every other day for adults. To know the quantity and variety of food to feed your turtle, consult your veterinarian.
Housing an ornate turtle
Ornate box turtles thrive in large and properly constructed outdoor enclosures to move around and a high fence to prevent them from climbing and escaping, but it will depend if the climate is suitable. If you can’t keep your turtle outdoors, provide a big indoor terrarium with several hiding places, logs, plunks, and a deep spot for sand or soil for burrowing. Use or peat-based potting compost mixed with sphagnum moss or a thick layer of loose peaty soil for your turtle to burrow. Regularly mist the substrate to keep it damp. Also, ensure there’s a shallow bowl of water for drinking and soaking. Ensure there are both sunny and shady spots where your turtle can go to bask and also cool off.
Light and temperature
You should keep your indoor turtles at optimal temperatures and humidity levels to prevent them from getting eye infections, other diseases, or stop them from eating or becoming weak. Ornate turtles need UVB light to metabolize calcium. For your outdoor turtle, the natural sun will meet this requirement, but for your indoor turtle, a UVB lamp or fluorescent lights will provide enough UVB radiation to reach your turtle and help with vitamin D synthesis, calcium metabolism, and prevent metabolic bone disease.
The daytime temperature should be between 70-90 degrees F., nighttime temperatures between 65-75 degrees F., and the basking area should be between 80-85 degrees F. both warm and cool areas of your indoor enclosure should provide the right temperatures and to avoid overheating, use a thermometer to help you keep an eye on the temperatures in the enclosure.
Ornate box turtles are very sensitive to the wrong environments. They require a high humidity substrate for burrowing and constant access to water for regular drinking and soaking. These box turtles prefer a humidity level of around 40-50%. In the wild, turtles create a humid environment for by digging holes in moist soil so you should provide them with turtle beddings that are about 4 inches deep with regular misting. You mustn’t let your ornate turtle become dehydrated. You should keep the ornate turtle hatchlings in slightly more humid conditions than adults. To prevent them from dehydrating, keep their humidity levels between 60-70%.
Behavior and temperament
Most box turtles don’t make good pets for kids because they can be shy and hide in their shells most of the time and don’t like excess handling or petting. The ornate box turtle is a bit perkier and with more personality than the other box turtles. A variety of ornate box turtles raised in captivity can adapt better to handling than the wild ones. Also, the wild turtles caught don’t usually thrive in captivity and often die from the stress. When they feel threatened, box turtles are known to bite, but once they’re comfortable they can be very active and enjoy exploring their environment. The ornate turtle will usually hibernate when it gets cold, but in captivity, this will usually manifest as burrowing.
Once the female lays eggs, it will leave and never return to the hatchlings which means the box turtle hatchlings will have to fight to survive from day one. The hatchlings have a very vulnerable and softshell for the first two years after hatching which makes them easy prey to raptor birds, crows, dogs, and other predators. Most of these hatchlings don’t make it past the first 2 years of their life. However, if they survive, they have a life expectancy of about 40-60 years while some can even live for 100 years. The longevity of the ornate box turtle will largely depend on his diet, cleanliness of his enclosure, habitat, and stress levels. Providing optimal conditions for your ornate turtle will lead to a healthy and long life.
Common health and behavior problems
The ornate box turtles just like other box turtles are more prone to respiratory infections, vitamin A deficiency, and parasites. If your box turtle is in good health, he should have clear and bright eyes, no bumps, bruises, or wounds on his skin, and a smooth shell with no spots or flaky dryness. However, if you notice any of these symptoms, you should take your turtle to the vet immediately. These include swollen ears, diarrhea, watery eyes, frequent drinking, skin dryness, weight loss, abscesses, loss of appetite, swollen eyes, unusual exhaustion, behavior changes, and routine. Some of the conditions that affect box turtles are breathing disorders, fungal and bacterial infections, bone disease, parasites, eye swelling, and organ failure.
Some box turtle health problems you can rake of yourself
Superficial cuts and bruises
If your turtle is taking antibiotics, you can soak him in water but don’t submerge him at least twice a day. Most antibiotics have toxic by-products to your turtle’s kidneys so it’s good to keep him hydrated to help in removing the toxins. You can treat some of the minor injuries using a home first-aid kit. You can clean and disinfect cuts on your turtle’s upper and lower shells and if it’s a deep wound, you can cover it with a Band-Aid and keep your turtle indoors. If there’s any infection apply antibiotic ointment and if the wounds don’t get better after a few days, take your turtle to the vet.
Egg flies or insects on your turtle’s skin
Use tweezers to remove fly eggs, chiggers, or ticks, clean the area with disinfectant, and apply some antibiotic ointment. Remove all sources of insects in your turtle’s outdoor enclosure or keep him indoors until you’ve gotten rid of all the insects so avoid keeping food in his enclosure for more than 2 hours. Clean and cover open wounds on your turtle to prevent flies from laying eggs on them. If there are maggots under the skin eating the flesh, take him to see a vet as the wound may be larger and he might need shots to prevent secondary infections. You can wash mites off with soapy water then relocate your turtle and place pet strips in the enclosure to kill the mites.
Irregular shell growth
This is the beginning of the metabolic bone disease and can have long term effects on your ornate box turtle. The shell will look lumpy and overgrown on one side or have an abnormal-looking head. Other signs include long nails and overgrown beaks. To correct this, you need to make changes in your turtle’s diet by giving the right amounts of vitamins, minerals, proteins, fat, and providing enough light.
Shell rot in box turtles is caused by bacteria or fungus that often finds its way through the small cracks and cuts in the plastron. The bacteria gets into the keratin layer of the shell and begins to grow on the bone which causes the layers to separate from the bone exposing a smelly area where the shell is rotting. To prevent this, always disinfect the cuts on your turtle’s shell and apply an antibiotic cream on infected cuts, shell, and skin. Keep your turtle’s habitat as clean as possible and remove feces and food also change the water regularly. Also, consider taking your turtle to see a vet if the shell rot is extensive.
Overgrown turtle nails
Wild turtle nails get worn out from foraging for food, however, turtles in captivity don’t get enough exercise and their nails tend to overgrow which affects their walking. Use a pair of sharp toenail clippers to gently clip the nails to keep them short. Overgrown nails can be caused by nutritional deficiencies and if you notice dry peeling skin, overgrown beak, or soft shell, you should take your turtle to the vet. To prevent this problem, change your box turtle’s diet to include the correct amounts of all he needs to make a healthy meal.
How can you tell your ornate box turtle gender?
You can’t tell the gender of your ornate box turtle just by looking at its genitalia. You have to look inside the shell as it’s not visible from the outside however, there are a few differences between the male and female ornate turtles.
- The male ornate box turtle is mostly smaller than the female but this depends on the diet, age, and overall health of the turtle.
- The best way to tell the difference between the male and female ornate box turtles is to look at the back claws. The male’s inner claw tends to be larger and curved while that of the female is smaller and straighter.
- The sex of the incubated ornate box turtle eggs is determined by the temperatures in the hole. If the eggs are incubated at 84 degrees F., the hatchlings will all be females and because the temperatures occur mostly in the natural habitat, there are more females than males.
- The males also have a thicker and longer tail than the females and a cloacal opening that is a bit farther back on their tail.
- There is also a slight difference in the color of the male and female heads and legs. The male has a reddish color on its legs.
A buying guide for some ornate box turtle supplies
This is real compressed moss that is excellent for increasing humidity in your turtle’s terrarium and great for burrowing. Its very absorbent so it can keep your turtle’s home humid for a long time so you don’t need to keep misting regularly. It’s very convenient and affordable and you don’t need to use much for your turtle.
This is a reptile aquarium tank that is lightweight and easy to move and made with durable material. The tank has a large front door made with quality acrylic that will allow you to observe your turtle without disturbing him. The door has vent holes and 2 rotating locks to keep your turtle secure inside the tank. There is a raised platform with a built-in food tray and a rubber plug on the floor to easily drain any spilled water and makes it easier to clean.
This phosphorous-free calcium supplement is an excellent addition to your ornate box turtle’s diet. it’s a highly bio-available source of calcium carbonate that is free of any impurities that can harm your turtle and you just need to sprinkle a bit of it on your turtle’s food to provide all the vitamins and minerals your turtle needs to stay healthy.
This is a compact ultrasonic humidifying fogger that will help to increase your turtle’s tank humidity. It comes with a non-spill valve that makes it easy for you to remove and refill the water bottle when it’s empty. You can use it with a temperature controller so you can easily know the correct humidity and temperatures to maintain in your turtle’s habitat.
This is a natural half log shelter that you can place in your turtle’s habitat to act as a hiding place where he feels safe. This will help to reduce his stress that comes with being kept in captivity. It will provide a humid shelter when it’s hot outside or a cool place for your turtle to relax.
Cuttlefish bone will provide your box turtle with natural calcium and minerals. You can grind this product into a powder and add it to your turtle’s food as a calcium supplement. Its natural surface helps to keep your turtle’s beak sharp and trim.
Ornate box turtles are not as hardy as other box turtle species so it’s not the most suitable pet to have if it’s your first time owning a turtle. They’re difficult to keep in captivity, sensitive to stress, and have very specific needs. However, they’re very active and full of personality that other turtles lack.