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The distribution of the Ornate Box Turtle lies in the central plains of Nebraska and southern South Dakota, east across to Indiana and south into Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. In Wyoming it is a peripheral species with little documentation of its existence—possibly in a localized area of the North Platte River Valley west of the Nebraska border in Goshen County. This terrestrial turtle is fond of the native (unplowed) shortgrass and sandhill communities of the prairie life zone where it prefers soft, well drained soils which allow easy burrowing.
These turtles are primarily diurnal and active from late April through September. During the spring and fall they are out in the afternoons, but in summer they burrow to avoid the heat of the day and move about during the early morning and evening. They dig their own shallow burrows as well as use those made by mammals like pocket gophers and kangaroo rats. Rains are thought to be a type of dispersal cue (initiating spring emergence from hibernation and local migration) because many are found dead on roads after rains. Their main food source consists of insects and other invertebrates as well as some vegetation such as the fruits and pads of prickly-pear cactus. They are reported to search under cow dung for foods like beetles and crickets. I have not heard of anyone being bitten by a box turtle but they may mouth gape and feign biting if sufficiently frustrated—they commonly release fluid from the cloaca when handled.
It is a small turtle, 4-5 inches long (CL) with a classic, dome-shaped shell. This is the only turtle species in Wyoming with a hinged plastron which can be shut against the carapace to enclose the head and legs for protection. The hinge is nonfunctional in hatchlings and juveniles. The carapace has a plain auburn to dark brown background with a mixed pattern of yellow bars and vermiculations and with a midline stripe running along the back. The plastron has a similar pattern, but seems somewhat reversed—designed more like having a yellow background with brown markings. The gray, brown, and yellow blotched skin is covered with an assortment of irregularly sized and shaped scales. The blunt faced head has a horny edged beak and the neck sports the famous and fashionable “turtle-neck” collar or fold of skin. The tail is short. The feet are 4-clawed. Males have red eyes, a slightly concave plastron, and a thickened and outwardly turned claw on the hind feet. In males, when the tail is extended, the position of the vent lies beyond the edge of the shell.
The mating season is sporadic and may occur in early spring or later during the summer. The male climbs on the back of the female and holds on with the assistance of the claws on the hind feet. The female may facilitate the male in his awkward balancing act by clinching his hind legs. During copulation the male may fall off but still remain attached to the female in coitus. Because the female is able to store sperm for an extended period, nesting and egg laying may occur the same year as mating or the following year, usually in May or June and perhaps again in August if the female is producing a second clutch. After fertilization and egg production, the gravid female digs a shallow nesting cavity and deposits 2-8 brittle shelled eggs. Incubation takes 9-10 weeks and the hatching process is assisted by the use of the egg tooth (caruncle). Sexual maturity is reached in 8-10 years.