Ornate Box Turtle Terrapene ornata - Special Concern

Family: Emydidae

General Description: The Ornate Box Turtle is a terrestrial turtle with a domed carapace that has a brown background color and marked in yellow streaks. The plastron is similar in appearance to the carapace and has a single hinge located just posterior to the forelimbs, allowing the animal to withdraw its head and forelimbs into the shell. Adults have a carapace length that ranges from 4–6 inches (10.2–15.2 cm) in length, with females typically being slightly larger than males. Yellow marks are typically present on the neck and limbs and reddish orange marks may appear on the large scales on the forelimbs. Adult males and females can be easily discerned from one another: males have red irises and females have yellow irises. It can easily be distinguished from other South Dakota turtles by the presence of domed carapace covered with yellow streaks (Blanding’s Turtles have a domed carapace covered with yellow dots and a bright yellow throat and lower jaw).

Behavior: Ornate Box Turtles are omnivorous, feeding insects, worms, carrion, plant material such as rose hips. These turtles are primarily active during dusk and dawn and avoid the mid-day heat by seeking refuge in dense vegetation and in burrows. The activity of this species typically increases following rainfall. During winter months, turtles overwinter in deep burrows where they avoid freezing.

Reproduction: Mating typically takes place in May, but may continue through the summer months, with females having the ability to store sperm. Females reach sexual maturity in 8 years while males reach maturity usually around 5 years. Females dig nests in sandy soils and can lay 1–8 eggs. If resources are plentiful, females may have two clutches of eggs within a season.

Habitat: The Ornate Box Turtle is a terrestrial species of turtle that can be found in grasslands and some agricultural land throughout its range. Though not an aquatic turtle, it can also be found near wetlands and other aquatic habitats. These turtles spend much of their time in burrows, seeking refuge from intense mid-day heat. As active burrowers, these turtles tend to prefer terrestrial habitats with sandy soils to accommodate digging behaviors.

Species Range: This species occurs throughout much of the Great Plains, from South Dakota south through Texas and into Mexico. Additionally, it ranges east through Missouri and Illinois with several, isolated peripheral populations.

South Dakota Range: This species occurs in the Sandhills and open grasslands of south-central South Dakota.

South Dakota Status: The Ornate Box Turtle is listed on the South Dakota Natural Heritage Program. Any sightings of this species should be reported to South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks (report observation).

Account written by Drew R. Davis and Rachel E. Johannsen

Distribution Map
Distribution map of Ornate Box Turtle (Terrapene ornata)

County level distribution of this species in South Dakota. Map generated from data collected from voucher specimens and photographic records. See About for additional information.

Ornate Box Turtle (Terrapene ornata)
Ornate Box Turtle (Terrapene ornata)