Painted turtles are some of the most unique and interesting turtles in the world, with beautiful coloration and a few different subspecies.
The southern painted turtle is the subspecies that populated the southern US however there are several other variants of this turtle that populate the north, east, and west of the US, and while similar, there are a few key differences between them.
The smallest of all the painted turtle subspecies, the southern requires quite specific care and conditions in order to remain healthy and well looked after, however, they are beautiful and are mostly well behaved providing they are not made anxious, but we’ll go into more details about this later.
In this piece, we’re going to look at some of the specific things that set southern painted turtles apart from their distant cousins, as well as how to look after them, how they behave, and give you some insight on whether they would make a good pet for you.
Getting some of this information beforehand is really important, as turtles require very specific conditions and care, and are much more of a commitment than other household pets, however they are unique and wonderful creatures and can make long-term companions providing years of company and joy.
To start with, we’ll help you out with some tips on identifying the southern, to make sure you’re able to confirm you’re getting the correct species if and when you buy, before going into more detail about this species.
Male vs. Female
Being able to distinguish between male and female turtles can be quite tricky to those who don’t know very much about them, however, there are a few things to look out for which can make identifying the sex of your turtle quite easy.
With the southern painted turtle, one of the first things to look at is the claw length. Most male painted turtles will have longer front claws than females as this helps them to stay in position while mating. Males also have longer tails which are thicker near the bottom, while female turtles have thinner, shorter tails. The male’s cloacal opening is further down the trail and away from the body, while on females the cloacal is much closer to the main area of the body.
These are all telltale signs that can make it quite quick and easy to check your turtle’s sex, but always be wary when checking as this can make turtles nervous and they are not afraid to defend themselves with bites and scratches if they feel threatened.
Painted turtles are generally easy to recognize as they of course come with quite vivid and striking coloration both on their skin and in different areas of their shell. However, telling the different subspecies apart requires a little more specificity.
While you may be expecting this to be difficult, it’s actually surprisingly easy with the southern, as these have quite obvious and distinct patterns and color differences.
The first thing to note is that their plastron, (the underside of their shell) is always solid yellow.
The other telltale giveaway is a southern will be the thin line of color running down the middle of its main carapace. This line can be different colors but the most common is an orangey red, and it looks almost like someone put a strikethrough over the top of their shell from the top to the bottom. None of the other subspecies have this central colored line, so this makes it very easy to immediately identify southerns.
As a Pet
As pets, the painted turtle is a fairly common choice, mainly because of its striking colors and ubiquity in the US.
Their temperament is generally peaceful when left alone and well looked after, however, they can easily become threatened and don’t like being handled, which could make them a poor choice for owners who want to be able to handle their pets a lot.
When they feel threatened, painted turtles will bite, kick, scratch, and urinate, and they are deceptively powerful despite their relatively small size.
Another thing to consider is the fact that they require quite specific conditions in order to be healthy, and also live quite a long time making them a very long-term commitment.
They are also known, like all turtles, to potentially carry salmonella which is a dangerous bacteria that makes washing hands after handling turtles essential. Children in particular are at risk of serious illness and are more likely to be exposed because they aren’t able to understand the importance of handwashing after touching these creatures.
A lot of turtle species are reported to have very long lifespans, and the southern painted are no exception. They can live in captivity for 30 years quite commonly and have been known to live longer than this in some cases. In the wild they generally won’t be able to live as long due to the harsher conditions of their environment and predation, however, they are still capable of surviving for multiple decades making them one of the most populous species of turtle in the US.
The key adaptation that sets these subspecies apart is the line that runs down the middle of their back. While it’s unclear what purpose this coloration serves it’s definitely the most unique part of the southern painted turtle.
As aquatic turtles, they are also adapted to the water and have flatter shells and webbed feet to make them more effective in the water. They can retract their head and limbs inside of their shell should they be attacked, and also don’t have teeth, instead of using bony plates within their jaws.
As with most US turtle species, breeding begins in the spring and can continue into the middle of summer, ranging from March to June and sometimes even beyond this.
There is also a fairly elaborate mating ritual that males perform, where they face the female and wave their long front claws in a fluttering motion, and the female will sometimes reciprocate.
Nesting is done by the females and is done between May and July. Typically the nests are dug into sandy soil and within 200 yards of water in the wild but can be made further away. Females will also refuse to nest if the temperature is too hot, and can wait weeks before the conditions are right for them to actually lay.
They can lay up to 5 clutches per year but 2 is most common, the clutches for this species are quite small and average around 4, while their larger northern cousins have a much higher average of between 7 and 11.
Eggs incubate for around 80 days and hatch in late August or September. Young turtles grow rapidly and can double in size within a year, and this gradually decreases and stops as they get older.
Given proper care these turtles can live as long as 50 years in captivity, making them nearly lifelong companions, however they more commonly live for 20 to 30 years.
Their conservation status is listed as least concern and they are very populous in the US, so their population is large and not considered at risk, and they are actually quite adept at adapting to human interference in their environment.
They can eat many things and are omnivorous, eating aquatic vegetation, algae, insects, small fish, and crustaceans. Their diet should include all these things in captivity to promote health.
Raccoons will eat the eggs of these turtles, as well as coyotes and mink or otters, and these can also feed on adults. Alligators and some birds also prey on turtles.
The southern painted turtle has a range located mostly from southern Missouri, through western Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, Western Alabama, and Louisiana, with some parts of Eastern Texas also.
Turtles can be prone to a skin infection if left in dirty water, and can also suffer from parasites. A telltale sign of parasites is diarrhea and lethargy, and worming tablets should be used to fix this.
They can also be prone to respiratory diseases, abscesses, shell infections, shell fractures, and vitamin A deficiency.
Yellow or yellow-brown with dark pupils.
These turtles do hibernate in the wild when temperatures drop, despite the fact that these turtles are some of the most resistant to cold weather. They will hibernate in the mud at the bottom of the water for months and are specially adapted to be able to survive the cold and the low oxygen environment this creates.
In captivity they don’t have to hibernate as long as conditions are stable, however, some owners do induce hibernation, however, it’s unknown whether this is beneficial for the turtles or not.
Can they Swim?
Yes, they swim well and quite enjoy using their webbed feet to propel themselves through the water.
As with all turtles, they need to be kept in carefully controlled aquariums and the water needs to be kept clean to prevent infections. A good quality diet is also essential for long-term health.
The main cost with these turtles is setting up a proper aquarium as they require and enjoy fairly deep clean water.
The cost of the turtles themselves can vary widely but ranges from 30 dollars up and above 100 dollars in some places.
Unlike how they are portrayed in animations and in the popular imagination, painted turtles are able to flip themselves back onto their feet if they fall onto their shell.