Painted turtles – known scientifically as Chrysemys picta – are the most widespread native turtle of North America. They live in slow-moving fresh waters and are found all over the continent, from southern Canada to northern Mexico.
The western subspecies can be found from western Ontario to British Columbia and the southern and central United States, as well as northern Oregon. Today, we’re going to be zooming in on these beautiful creatures and exploring their characteristics, life cycles, adaptations and care requirements.
Male vs Female
Female Western Painted Turtles are larger than males. Once fully grown, the female turtles can measure up to 8-10 inches, whereas the males are usually half the size – about 4-6 inches on average.
Western turtles are the largest and most colorful of the painted turtle species.
Its top shell has a mesh-like pattern of light lines, and the top stripe present in other subspecies is missing or faint. With vibrant yellow stripes on their legs and head and a plastron patterned with red, yellow and black blotching, this turtle is certainly eye-catching.
As a Pet
The Western Painted Turtle can be kept as a pet, but will require proper filtration and an appropriate diet and environment in order to thrive in captivity.
Painted turtles have a docile nature which makes them great pets, but, like many kinds of turtles and reptiles, they are more care-intensive than pet mammals, and due to their long lifespans, they require careful consideration before committing to keeping one as a pet.
As their breeding season is restricted to spring and summer, captive-bred babies are most commonly available from May through September. However, because of the significant numbers of babies hatched yearly, they are usually available for most of the year.
Painted turtles have been known to live as long as 50 years in captivity, and given proper diet, housing, and care, it’s reasonable to expect a painted turtle to live for 25 to 30 years.
Western Painted Turtles are continually on the lookout for predators and will seek refuge in the water at the first sign of danger. For protection, they are able to quickly retract their head and legs into their hard shell.
They also bask in groups on logs, fallen trees, and other objects near water as the sun exposure helps rid them of parasites. Painted turtles also hibernate during the winter months by burrowing themselves into the mud.
The breeding season for Western Painted Turtles lasts from late spring to early summer. Females nest on land and prefer soft, sandy soil with good exposure to the sun for their nest site. The nest is usually no deeper than 10 to 12 centimeters.
Turtles dig their nests with their hind feet and usually situate them within 200 meters of water.
Female Western Painted Turtles will lay between 4 to 15 oval, soft-shelled eggs, in a flask-shaped hole in the ground. Interestingly the sex of the turtle is determined during a critical phase of embryogenesis and depends on the incubation temperature.
These temperature-dependent reptiles lack sex chromosomes that determine gender, so low temperatures during incubation produce males and high temperatures produce females.
As soon as they hatch, the baby turtles are dependent on egg yolk. About a week to a week and a half after emerging from their eggs, hatchlings begin feeding to support growth.
Young turtles grow rapidly at first and can even double in size in their first year of life.
As they approach sexual maturity, growth slows sharply and may stop completely. Of all the Painted Turtle subspecies, the Western Painted Turtles are the quickest growers.
Females painted turtles grow faster than males, and they also grow larger in order to mature sexually. In most populations, males will reach sexual maturity at 2–4 years old, and females later on at 6–10.
- Mating: the painted turtle mates in spring and fall in waters of 10–25 °C (50–77 °F). Males start producing sperm in early spring when they can bask to an internal temperature of 17 °C (63 °F), while females begin their reproductive cycles in mid-summer, and ovulate the following spring. Courtship begins when a male follows a female until he meets her face-to-face.
- Egg-laying: Nesting is done by the females only, between late May and mid-July, and in the wild, incubation lasts 72–80 days. In August and September, the young turtle breaks out from its egg.
Population densities range from 10 to 840 turtles per hectare (2.5 acres) of water surface.
Western Painted Turtles feed mainly on plants and small animals, such as fish, crustaceans, and aquatic insects. While they don’t have teeth, the horny ridges on their upper and lower jaws enable them to chew food.
The animals and plants consumed by the Western Painted Turtle change seasonally. For example, in early summer, 60% of its diet comprises insects, whereas in late summer, 55% is made up of plants.
Interestingly, the Western Painted Turtle aids in the dispersal of white water-lily seeds. The turtle consumes the hard-coated seeds and disperses them through its feces, allowing them to remain viable after passing through the turtle.
Like most creatures, painted turtles are at their most vulnerable to predators when young, as nests are frequently ransacked and eggs eaten by garter snakes, crows, chipmunks, gray squirrels, skunks, groundhogs, raccoons, badgers, and gray and red foxes.
Seen as hatchlings are so small, they can also fall prey to water bugs, bass, catfish, bullfrogs, snapping turtles, three types of snakes (copperheads, racers, and water snakes), herons, rice rats, weasels, muskrats, minks, and raccoons.
As adults, the turtles’ armored shells offer significant protection from potential predators, although they can still occasionally fall prey to alligators, ospreys, crows, red-shouldered hawks, bald eagles, and especially raccoons.
To defend themselves, painted turtles kick, scratch, bite or urinate on their attacker. In contrast to land tortoises, they also have the advantage of being able to right themselves if they are flipped upside down.
Painted turtles can travel up to several kilometers a time searching for water, food, or mates.
During summer, as a result of heat and water-clogging vegetation, the turtles often vacate shallow marshes for more permanent waters. Short overland migrations have been known to involve hundreds of turtles together, but sadly, if heat and drought are prolonged, the turtles will bury themselves and, in some extreme cases, die.
When foraging for food, Western Painted Turtles frequently cross lakes or travel linearly down creeks, and even daily crossings of large ponds have been observed.
Tag and release studies have indicated that sex also drives turtle movement. For this reason, males travel the most and are most likely to migrate wetlands in search of mates; females the second most, and juveniles the least.
When kept as pets, there are some health issues you should look out for in painted turtles. These include intestinal parasites, which can develop on the shell, skin, and even on the ear of the turtle.
This can occur if the turtle’s water condition goes down, which is why you should change the water regularly and check for algae on the skin and shell of the turtle.
If the painted turtle isn’t fed a proper diet, it can also develop a condition called hypovitaminosis A, which is a deficiency of vitamin A and can lead to raw and swollen skin, stomatitis, nasal drainage, and many other issues.
They are also prone to metabolic bone disease, which can develop if the turtle doesn’t get enough UVB and calcium. This can also lead to shell deformities, which is a major issue.
Most turtles have yellow or brown eye color, with black pupils.
In the wild, the water temperature reaches 15–18 °C (59–64 °F) in Spring and the turtle begins actively foraging. If the water temperature exceeds 30 °C (86 °F), the turtle will not feed.
In fall, the turtle stops foraging when temperatures drop, and during the winter they will hibernate by burying themselves, either on the bottom of a body of water, near water in the shore-bank, the burrow of a muskrat, or in woods or pastures.
Can they swim?
Yes! Painted turtles love to swim and require access to clean water, both for drinking and for swimming in, if kept in captivity.
When keeping a Western Painted Turtle as a pet, they’ll need:
- A spacious tank
- A basking area
- An underwater hiding place
- A diet with all the sufficient vitamins and minerals
- 10 gallons of water for a juvenile turtle, and increase the volume of water by 5 gallons for each additional baby turtle.
- In adulthood, the turtle should be provided with a minimum of 20 gallons of water and an additional 10 gallons of water volume for each additional turtle.
Painted turtles cost between $15 and $25 on average; however, their prices can be as low as $10 and as high as $50 depending on location, the subspecies, size, and age of the turtle.
- The sex of the painted turtle is determined by the temperature during development
- A group of turtles is called a ‘bale of turtles’
- Turtles shed their shells as they’re growing
- Painted turtles can swim underwater