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