Painted turtle (Chrysemys picta)

GenusChrysemys (1)
SizeFemale carapace length: up to 25.4 cm (1) (2)
Male carapace length: up to 15.3 cm (1) (2)
Hatchling length: 1.8 - 3.1 cm (1)
Top facts

The painted turtle is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

A small, attractive reptile, the painted turtle (Chrysemys picta) has a smooth, olive to black upper shell, or carapace, with yellow or red borders along the seams. The scutes on the outer edge of the shell are unserrated (2) (3) (4), and are decorated with red crescents or bars (2). Some individuals may also have a well-developed red or yellow stripe running along the centre of the carapace (2). The lower shell, or plastron, is yellow, and is often marked with a black or reddish-brown blotch which varies considerably in size and shape (2) (3).

The skin of the painted turtle is black to olive, and the neck, legs and tail are all striped with red and yellow (2) (3). The painted turtle has a large yellow spot on each side of the head, behind the eye, and a yellow stripe also extends backwards from below the eye, sometimes merging with another stripe on the lower jaw (2). The eye of the painted turtle is also yellow and has a dark horizontal bar running through the pupil (3). The chin is marked with two wide yellow stripes that extend to the tip of the jaw, where they meet and enclose a narrower stripe (2). The upper jaw of the painted turtle is notched (2) (3).

Extensive variations on shell colouring, pattern and size occur between each of the four recognised subspecies of painted turtle (1) (2) (3) (5) (6). For example, the southern painted turtle (Chrysemys picta dorsalis) lacks the patterning on the plastron (2) (5).

Male painted turtles are generally smaller and flatter than the females, and have elongated foreclaws and longer, thicker tails (2) (3). Female painted turtles grow at a faster rate than males (2).

The carapace of hatchling painted turtles is round and keeled, and the colour and patterns on both the skin and shell are brighter and more pronounced than in the adult (2) (3). The head, eyes and tail of the hatchling are also proportionally larger than in the adult (2).

The painted turtle is the only North American turtle that naturally occurs across the continent (2), and it is one of the most widespread and abundant turtle species in the United States and Canada (1). This species occurs across southern Canada, southwards through the U.S. to southern Georgia, Utah and Arizona (1) (2), and into Chihuahua, Mexico (2).

The painted turtle has also been introduced to Germany, Spain, Indonesia and the Philippines (1).

The painted turtle prefers habitats with shallow, slow-moving water (1) (2) that has soft bottoms and dense aquatic vegetation (1) (2) (4) (5). Areas with abundant basking sites, such as lakes, ponds, swamps, rivers and drainage ditches, are also favoured (2).

While the painted turtle is generally considered to be a freshwater species, it has been reported in brackish waters (1) (2), and it is also known to be fairly tolerant of polluted water (2).

The habitat preferences of the painted turtle change during the course of its life, with hatchlings and smaller juveniles generally occupying shallower waters, moving to deeper habitats as they grow (2).

The painted turtle is generally considered to be a diurnal species (2) (4), spending its nights sleeping on the bottom of a water body, although nocturnal activity has been observed in some parts of its range. This species tends to become active around sunrise, and starts the day by basking for several hours on anything that extends from the water, including logs, rocks and sand bars. Basking sites are commonly shared with other painted turtles, with as many as 50 individuals basking on a log at one time, sometimes with other turtle species. The rest of the day is spent both basking and foraging (2).

The painted turtle is omnivorous, and eats almost any plant or animal, dead or alive (1) (2). However, aquatic insects, crustaceans, plants and algae form the bulk of its diet (3). Rather than adopting a sit-and-wait strategy, the painted turtle usually actively forages for food along the bottom of the water body (2) (3), flushing prey out of hiding by making exploratory strikes into vegetation using its head and limbs. In order to swallow, this species must have its head submerged (3). Young painted turtles are carnivorous at first (2) (3) (6), but become more herbivorous as they mature (2) (6).

In the northern parts of its range, the painted turtle is most active from March to October, hibernating for the remainder of the year, whereas southern populations may be active during any month. During hibernation, the painted turtle can usually be found submerged in water, down to a depth of two metres, buried in the soft substrate at the bottom (2).

The male painted turtle generally reaches maturity at between two and four years of age, and the female between six and ten years (1) (2). Courtship and mating in the painted turtle usually occur from March to mid-June, although they can occur later in the year (2). The female painted turtle is capable of storing sperm to fertilise clutches later in the season (2).

Nesting time varies depending on the location, running from April to mid-July in Louisiana, May to July in Arkansas, and June to July in more northern parts of the painted turtle’s range. The female painted turtle uses its hind feet to dig a flask-shaped nest (2), and may dig several test sites before completing a final nest cavity. Nests are generally dug in loamy or sandy soil in open areas, and are usually found within 200 metres of water (2).

A female painted turtle lays between one and five clutches per season, with two being the most common (1) (2), although not all females reproduce each year (1) (2) (3). Clutch sizes vary depending on the subspecies and the location (1), ranging from 1 to 23 eggs per clutch (1) (2). The white to cream eggs are elliptical in shape (2), and are incubated for between 62 and 80 days (1). Young from clutches laid late in the season may overwinter within the nest until the warmer weather returns (2) (4) (6).

The sex of painted turtle hatchlings is determined by the temperature at which they are incubated (2) (3), with cooler temperatures producing predominantly males, and temperatures of 29 to 32 degrees Celsius producing all females (2).

Painted turtle nests are subject to a high level of predation, with raccoons, snakes, rodents and humans being among the top predators (2). Young turtles are also at risk from predation by frogs and large wading birds (2) (3), while adult painted turtles can be taken by alligators, birds of prey and raccoons (2).

Aside from natural predators, the painted turtle does not currently face any major threats, and is frequently the most abundant turtle species in its habitat (2). However, local die-offs of this species are sometimes reported, potentially as a result of human impacts (3), including hunting, habitat destruction, the use of pesticides, and the pet trade (2).

Given its abundance and wide distribution, the painted turtle is not currently the subject of any targeted conservation efforts. However, painted turtles are often hit by cars and are sometimes shot by humans. In areas where local die-offs occur, research to determine the precise causes of these declines is recommended (3).

More information on the conservation of turtles:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:

  1. IUCN Red List (August, 2012)
  2. Ernst, C.H. and Lovich, J.E. (2009) Turtles of the United States and Canada. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland.
  3. Harding, J.H. (1997) Amphibians and Reptiles of the Great Lakes Region. University of Michigan Press, Michigan.
  4. Russell, A.P., Bauer, A.M., Lynch, W. and McKinnon, I. (2000) The Amphibians and Reptiles of Alberta: A Field Guide and Primer of Boreal Herpetology. University of Calgary Press, Calgary, Alberta.
  5. Collins, J.T. and Conant, R. (1998) A Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians: Eastern and Central North America. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston, Massachusetts.
  6. Bartlett, R.D. and Bartlett, P.P. (2006) Turtles and Tortoises. Barron’s Educational Series, New York.