Photo by Devin Edmonds.

August 1, 2023

Discovering the Ornate Box Turtle: A Rare, Remarkable Illinois Reptile

Most people in Illinois who have come across a box turtle were in the woods. Eastern box turtles (Terrapene carolina) are a familiar site throughout forests in the southern half of our state. What many people do not realize is we also have a second and rarer box turtle in Illinois, the ornate box turtle (T. ornata). Inhabiting prairies rather than woodlands, ornate box turtles display striking coloration and are a real treat to observe if you are lucky enough to come across one.

An ornate box turtle walking through an area with recent green plant growth. The shell is dark brown with bright yellow markings and the head is a yellowish-green color.
The state-threated ornate box turtle inhabits prairie habitats. Photo by Devin Edmonds.

The main reason ornate box turtles are rarer and less often encountered than eastern box turtles in Illinois is their habitat requirements. Ornate box turtles are only found in the prairie, inhabiting open fields in the Southern Till Plain Natural Division, sand prairies along the Illinois and Mississippi rivers, and isolated pockets of grassland around the Kankakee Sands. Most Illinois prairie has been converted to agriculture, so small and often isolated pockets of protected habitat are now critical for ensuring ornate box turtles continue to persist in our state. They are currently state listed as threatened in Illinois.

As their common name suggests, ornate box turtles have an attractive shell pattern of radiating yellow-cream-colored stripes. Compared to their forest-dwelling counterparts, ornate box turtles are smaller, growing to only 4 to 6 inches. They are also often feistier than easterns, and less prone to hiding in their shell when disturbed. The common name “box turtle” originates from their hinged plastron (the bottom part of their shell), which allows them to completely close within their shell if threatened. Other kinds of turtles can only pull their limbs and head inside and hope for the best.

An ornate box turtle with its legs and head tucked into its shell.
Unlike other turtles, the bottom part of a box turtle’s shell is hinged, allowing them to close themselves inside for protection. Photo by Devin Edmonds.

Ornate box turtles can live for more than 40 years and take 8 to 11 years to mature. Females nest in early-mid June and lay 1 to 6 eggs. Most nests end up being predated by raccoons, skunks, hognose snakes and other egg-eating predators. However, if the nest is not destroyed, eggs will hatch in August or September. Sometimes the baby turtles do not emerge from the nest until the following spring, preferring to wait safely below ground after hatching. Yet, even after making it this far, baby box turtles rarely survive for long and are often eaten by predators.

It can take many years or decades before an adult female ornate box turtle is able to replace herself in the population because most of her offspring never survive to maturity. But, once ornate box turtles mature, they can live and reproduce for many years as there are few predators that can kill them. For this reason, protecting adult ornate box turtles is the key to their conservation. In today’s world, this means setting aside large areas of protected grassland habitat free from the threats of vehicles and illegal collection for the pet trade.

A young ornate box turtle moves over bare ground covered with small sticks and woody liter. The shell is dark greenish brown with yellow markings and a yellow line down the center of the shell.
A young ornate box turtle. Photo by Devin Edmonds.

If you are lucky enough to come across an ornate box turtle, it will probably be before peak midday heat. They are most active in the morning and late in the afternoon or early evening. Ornate box turtles spend the winter up to 5 feet below ground, usually going under in October and emerging in April. Yet, even during their active season they spend much of their time in the soil underground, excavating forms to spend the night in and burrowing under during hot or dry conditions. People tend to encounter ornate box turtles most often in late spring when the days are not yet hot and prairie grass is still short, making them easier to see. Appreciate that moment; ornate box turtles are uncommon, special animals.

Devin Edmonds is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Natural Resources and Enviromental Sciences at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and part of the PaCE Lab. For his master’s degree, he studies ornate box turtle demography in northern Illinois.

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