written by Melissa Mann
Painted turtles are medium-sized turtles that may reach a total length of 5.5 to 6.0 inches (Conant and Collins, 1998). The carapace is smooth, flat, and unkeeled. The species is characterized by conspicuous markings of yellow and red on the head, neck and limbs. The head is black with yellow stripes on the sides and bright yellow blotches above. The limbs and marginals of the carapace are decorated with red markings. The background color of the carapace ranges from black to olive. The crushing surface of the upper jaw is narrow and smooth with tooth-like projections on either side of the notch at the tip of the jaw.
Males and females are distinguished by claw length and placement of the cloaca relative to the tail. Males have elongated claws on the forelimbs that are usually 2 or 3 times the length of the forelimb claws of females. Forelimb claws of males are used chiefly for courtship and mating. The cloaca lies beyond the edge of the carapace in males while in females the position of the cloaca does not extend past the carapace. Females are also generally larger than males of the same age class.
There are four recognized subspecies of painted turtles distributed across much of North America, C. p. bellii in the western Canada and the United States, C. p. dorsalis in the south-central United States, C. p. marginata south-central Canada and central US, east of the Appalachian Mountains, and C. p. picta along the Atlantic coast. There are also areas or “zones” of intergration throughout the total range where overlap occurs and individuals have combined characteristics of two or more of the subspecies but, unlike hybrids, are fertile.
According to Pritchard (1967), painted turtles superficially resemble chicken turtles of the genus Deirochelys whose range is restricted to the southeastern United States. Unlike painted turtles, chicken turtles have a much longer neck and a reticulated pattern on the scutes of the carapace. Within its distribution in West Virginia, painted turtles may be confused with sliders, cooters and redbellied turtles (genera Trachemys and Pseudemys) which are large basking turtles that are often seen in the same habitats. In addition to the larger body size, turtles of the genera Trachemys and Pseudemys have a series of longitudinal wrinkles on the carapace, whereas the carapace of painted turtles is smooth. Map turtles (genus Graptemys) are of similar size and appearance but have a pronounced dorsal keel and an intricate pattern of stripes and whorls on the carpace.
Habitat and Habits:
Painted turtles spend much of their time basking on logs in shallow, slow-moving bodies of water such as lakes and ponds. They may also be found in quiet waters of streams and rivers. They prefer pools with soft and muddy bottoms that are rich in aquatic vegetation. Their omnivorous diet includes a variety of insects, crayfish, mollusks and aquatic vegetation. Hibernation takes place underneath mud at the bottom of a pond or lake. Spring emergence occurs sometime in March or April.
Courtship occurs in mid-April to June. Nests are built and eggs are laid from May to July. Females may build nests several hundred yards from water (Green and Pauley, 1987) in flask-shaped cavities that are covered with layers of mud. Average clutch size ranges from 4 to 10 eggs that are white and average 0.55 by 1.3 inches. The incubation period of painted turtle eggs is approximately 72 days (Smith, 1956).
Eastern Painted Turtle
Chrysemys picta picta
Eastern Painted Turtles in Jefferson County
Photo by Jeff Humphries
Eastern Painted Turtles are the only known turtles with the scutes arranged
in straight lines across the back. The
margins between the centrals and laterals are often bordered in tan or yellow
and follow the straight alignment of the scutes across the back.
The plastron is light yellow and unmarked with occasional small dark
Eastern Painted Turtles occur from Nova Scotia to Alabama in the eastern region of the United States (Green and Pauley, 1987). In West Virginia, the distribution has been historically separated Midland Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta marginata) by the Allegheny Mountains in the eastern part of the state. Intergrades with characteristics that are intermediate between the two subspecies occur where the ranges overlap, particularly in the Allegheny Mountain region and the eastern panhandle. The James River drainage in Monroe County has been cited as an area of intergration in West Virgina (Hoffman, 1949), and Seidel (1982) has noted the influence of the James and Roanoke river drainages in the area of the Upper New River on the distribution of turtle fauna in the state. This area is another possible region where intergradation may occur. The distribution status and intergradation of painted turtles in West Virginia is yet to be determined but has been studied in many other regions of the United States.
Eastern Painted Turtles are distributed in the eastern part of the state (see map above). They may be seen more frequently than many other turtles in the state due to their basking habits on the water surface or near the shore. They are not listed on the state or federal level.
Midland Painted Turtle
Midland Painted Turtle
Chrysemys picta marginata
Photo by Thomas K. Pauley
Midland Painted Turtles are similar in appearance to Eastern Painted Turtles except that the scutes on the carapace are alternately arranged and there is a dark central figure on the plastron that is normally oval in shape and takes up half or less than half the plastral width.
Midland Painted Turtles occur from Quebec and southern Ontario to Tennessee and northern Georgia and Alabama (Conant and Collins, 1998). In West Virginia, the distribution has been historically separated from the eastern painted turtle (Chrysemys picta picta) by the Allegheny Mountains in the eastern part of the state. Intergrades with characteristics that are intermediate between the two subspecies occur where ranges overlap. The distribution status and intergradation of the painted turtles in West Virginia are yet to be determined but has been studied in many other regions of the United States.
Midland Painted Turtles are common throughout the Allegheny Plateau in West Virginia. They may be seen more frequently than many other turtles in the state due to their basking habits on the water surface or near the shore. They are not listed on the state or federal level.
Conant, Roger, and Joseph Collins. 1998. A Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians: Eastern/Central North America. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Green, N. Bayard, and Thomas K. Pauley. 1987. Amphibians and Reptiles in West Virginia. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.
Hoffman, Richard L. 1949. The Turtles of Virginia. Virginia Wildlife. 10:16-19.
Pritchard, Peter Charles Howard. 1967. Living Turtles of the World. Jersey City: T. F. H. Publications, Inc.
Seidel, Michael E. A taxonomic analysis of pseudemyd turtles (Testudines:Emydidae) from the New River, and phenetic relationships in the subgenus Pseudemys. Brimleyana 6:24-44.
Smith, Hobart M. 1956. Handbook of Amphibians and Reptiles of Kansas. Topeka: University of Kansas
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