The Turtle Pages - Painted Turtle

PAINTED TURTLE

Chrysemys picta

Painted turtles are the most widespread turtles in the United States. Found across the northern half of the United States and southern Canada, painted turtles are very common throughout their range. Painted turtles can reach 10 inches (25 cm) in length. With their beautifully marked shells and abundance, painted turtles are often kept as pets.

Midland Painted Turtle
Painted turtles, such as this Midland painted turtle, are common throughout their range. Photo by Jeff Dawson.

Identification

The painted turtle is easily distinguished from other turtles. The smooth, flattened carapace of the painted turtle can be black, olive or brown. Some hatchlings have a keel that disappears with age. There are often light yellow or orange lines on the carapace scutes depending on the subspecies. On the marginals, there is often a pattern of red lines. The skin of the painted turtle is dark gray, olive, brown or black. The plastron of the painted turtle can be yellow, cream, or tan. Two subspecies have figures in the center of the plastron. There are many thin stripes on the head and neck of the painted turtle. The lines on the head are yellow, while those on the neck are red. The jaws of the painted turtles have narrow, flat crushing surfaces. There is a notch in the center of the upper jaw. On either side of the notch are two small cusps. The legs and tail of the painted turtle have many thin red lines on them. Mature males are smaller than the females and have elongated claws on their front feet.

Range of Painted Turtle
Range of Painted Turtle Painted turtles are found over a very wide range. Map by Jeff Dawson
There are four subspecies of the painted turtle. They are discriminated by their ranges, colors, and alignment of the carapace scutes. Chrysemys picta picta (Eastern Painted Turtle) is found between the Atlantic coast and the Appalachian Mountains from Nova Scotia to Alabama. The Eastern painted turtle has a network of yellow lines along the seams of the scutes. This is the only subspecies that has the central scutes aligned with the laterals. Often there is a narrow light line down the middle of the carapace. The marginals are marked above and below with red patterns. The plastron of the Eastern painted turtle is unmarked. Chrysemys picta marginata (Midland Painted Turtle) is found from southern Ontario and Quebec, through the Great Lakes and Ohio Valley to northern Alabama. Midland painted turtles have a small dark figure in the center of their plastrons which lightens with age. Chrysemys picta dorsalis (Southern Painted Turtle) lives in a strip on either side of the Mississippi River in the southern United States. It is found from southern Illinois south to the Gulf of Mexico coast. It is the smallest subspecies and has a red or yellow line running down the center of its carapace. Chrysemys picta belli (Western Painted Turtle) has the largest range of the four subspecies and is also the largest subspecies. It is found in the northern United States and southern Canada from Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River westward to Washington and British Columbia. Isolated populations are found in the southwestern United States. A fine network of light lines covers its carapace and a large figure is found on the center of its plastron.

In The Wild


Habitat

Painted turtles are very aquatic, but love to bask in the sun. They often bask in groups and will share basking sites with other turtle species. It is not uncommon to see 30 or more painted turtles basking on a single log. Painted turtles prefer soft-bottomed ponds, lakes, swamps, ditches and slow-moving streams with lots of aquatic vegetation.

Behavior

Painted turtles are diurnal. They spend several hours a day sunning themselves on rocks, logs, tree stumps and banks. Most basking occurs in the mid-morning and mid-afternoon. Painted turtles are very cautious and shy. When approached by humans they will dive into the water if approached. Painted turtles are also fond of floating at the surface of the water among aquatic plants. Usually they bury into the bottom of the waterway at night.

In late autumn, painted turtles become less active and by October or November are dormant. They hibernate underwater, buried into the mud at the bottom of ponds and streams. Painted turtles remain in hibernation for four or five months. By March or April, the painted turtle becomes active again. In the extreme south, painted turtles may hibernate very little or not at all. During the summer months, painted turtles are often found migrating from one body of water to another.

Reproduction

Maturity in painted turtles is based on size, not age. Males mature in 2 to 5 years, females take 4 to 8. The female painted turtle is usually larger than the male. Copulation usually occurs from April to May. However, in more northern climates, mating may not take place until summer or even early autumn. Before mating, the male courts the female. While courting, the male swims backward in front of the female. The male vibrates his long front claws against the female's chin and face as they swim around. After the courtship period, intercourse takes place. Viable sperm may remain in the female's genital tract for months or even years.

Hatchling Painted Turtles
Hatchling Painted Turtle
Above and Right: Hatchling painted turtles are only about 1 inch (27 mm) long. At this age, they are very vunerable to predators. Photos by Jeff Dawson.
The female lays her eggs from May to July. Egg laying usually occurs in May or June in the south. However, in northern states and provinces, nesting generally occurs in June and July. Northern females usually lay only one clutch a year, while those in the south may lay up to 4 clutches. Nests are dug in many soil types. Hard ground is moistened by urine before excavation to make the soil looser. The flask-shaped hole is excavated by the hind feet. The eggs are around 1.25 inches (32 mm) long. The female arranges each egg in the nest with her hind feet. A typical clutch contains 5 to 10 eggs. Larger turtles will lay more eggs than the smaller turtles, sometimes more than 20.

The eggs hatch in 10 to 11 weeks. Hatchlings in the north usually emerge from the nest in September or October. However, if the eggs were laid late in the year, the young may overwinter in the nest and successfully emerge the next spring. The hatchlings are around 1 inch (27 mm) long and 7/8 of an inch (24 mm) wide. A small yolk sac is still attached to the hatchling after leaving the nest. However, the yolk sac is absorbed within a few days. Immediately after leaving the nest, the young become vulnerable to many predators including raccoons, skunks, opossums, snakes, other turtles, and many birds.

Food

The painted turtle's diet varies with age. The hatchlings and juveniles are mainly carnivorous, switching to a more omnivorous diet as they mature. Insects such as dragonfly larvae, caddis fly larvae, and beetles make up most of the young painted turtle's food. Adults eat large amounts of plants (most frequently duckweed, algae, and lily pads) and snails, insects, crayfish, leeches, freshwater mussels, tadpoles and adult amphibians, fish eggs and fry, small fish, and carrion. Although painted turtles may compete with game fish for food, they do not prey heavily upon fish. The majority of the fish that are eaten are probably already dead or injured.

Longevity

The hatchlings of the painted turtle are eaten by many animals. Few survive long enough to reach maturity. Mature painted turtles are preyed upon by otters, alligators, coyotes, and occasionally humans. As they cross roadways, many adults are crushed by vehicles. The average lifetime for painted turtles in the wild is probably around 5 or 10 years. In captivity, turtles 20 years old are not uncommon.

Sources

  • Blair, Kyle. "Turtles". Unpublished.

  • Carr, Archie. Handbook of Turtles. Cornell University Press, 1983.

  • Ernst, Carl H., and Roger W. Barbour. Turtles of the World. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989.

  • Ernst, Carl H., Jeffrey E. Lovich, and Roger W. Barbour. Turtles of the United States and Canada. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994.

  • Smith, Hobart M. and Edmund D. Brodie, Jr. Reptiles of North America. Golden Press, 1982.

1998 by Jeff Dawson. All rights reserved.

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