Desert Box Turtle - Illustration by George Maleski
Desert Box Turtle
Terrapene ornata luteola


T.o. luteola is a land turtle that has a hinged shell design, allowing it to completely enclose itself within its shell. The shell is high and rounded, and marked with radiating lines of black or brown on a background of yellow.1 As the desert box turtle ages, the markings fade and many older individuals become a uniform yellow, tan, or straw in color.2 Male turtles have red irises and the first nail on each hind toe is turned in.1

Habitat: The desert box turtle is found in arid and semi-arid regions, on plains, grasslands, and in pastures. It prefers open prairies with herbaceous cover.3 This species requires easily penetrated soil for nesting, resting, and hibernating. The box turtle is associated with prairie dog towns.3

Range: T.o. luteola ranges throughout southeastern Arizona, much of New Mexico, southwestern Texas, and northern Mexico.2

Diet: The desert box turtle is omnivorous, feeding on plant and animal tissue. Much of the diet consists of insects, although the turtle will eat berries, young shoots, leaves, and occasionally carrion.3 The box turtle often searches under cow dung for beetles and other insects.1

Reproduction: The male desert box turtle reaches sexually maturity at eight to nine years, the female matures at ten or eleven years.2 Courtship and mating usually take place in the spring, immediately after awakening from hibernation. Female box turtles can retain the sperm from mating for several years. Nesting occurs from May to July. Clutch size ranges from two to eight eggs, and incubation lasts about seventy days.4

Status: As of 2005 the box turtle has been state protected in Arizona. Because it is considered a species of greatest conservation need, it can no longer be collected.

Desert Box Turtle in Pima County: This species occurs in Las Cienegas Conservation Area, in the Santa Cruz River near Sahuarita, and Altar Valley. Pima County is the westernmost edge of range for this species.5



1. Stebbins, Robert C. 1985. Western Reptiles and Amphibians. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company. pp.103.

2. Dawson, Jeff. 1998. "Western Box Turtle." 12/22/99 Web site:

3. New Mexico Game and Fish Department. 1997. BISON-M Taxonomy. 12/22/99
Web site:

4. Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum Tortoise Adoption Program. 1997. "Natural History and Husbandry of the Desert Box Turtle." 12/22/99 Web site:

5. RECON. 2001. Priority Vulnerable Species. Pima County Administration

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