Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta*)

Photo by Jim Rorabaugh

Painted Turtle (captive). Photo by Jim Rorabaugh


The Painted Turtle is an aquatic turtle of moderate size (< 266 mm carapace length) characterized by a smooth, oval, and somewhat flattened carapace that is olive to black with red or yellow seams between the scutes, and red bars or crescents on the marginal scutes.  A red or yellow mid-dorsal stripe may be present, and most specimens have a yellow netlike pattern on the vertebral and costal scutes.  The plastron is yellow, typically with a large, dark marking that radiates out to the edge of the plastron.  The skin of the head, neck, limbs, and tail is olive with yellow stripes, and there is no patch of color behind the eye.  Compared to females, males have longer, thicker tails with the anal opening posterior to the edge of the carapace.  Of the turtles in our area, the Painted Turtle is most easily confused with the Pond Slider.  That species has an orange or red patch behind the eye.  In the 100-Mile Circle, Painted Turtles have been introduced to canals, rivers, and urban lakes in the Phoenix area and in Tucson.  In the Tucson area, a Painted Turtle was removed from Sabino Lake in 2002, and the species has been reported from ponds at Kennedy, Agua Caliente, and Reid Parks. In Arizona, it has also been introduced to the Cottonwood area, but populations near St. Johns and at Lyman Lake could be native.  The Painted Turtle was also introduced to Quitobaquito Spring at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in or before 1980, but was removed by Park officials.  The species is native to southern Canada south through much of the northern and eastern United States to northern Chihuahua, Mexico.

Painted Turtles prefer permanent waters of slow-moving rivers and canals, and quiet waters of ponds, lakes, and reservoirs usually with some aquatic, emergent, and/or bankline vegetation.  Basking sites, such as logs or sandy banks, and a soft bottom of mud or sand enhance habitat for this species.  It is frequently observed basking, and is primarily diurnal in its activity. In cold climates, it is inactive through the winter, but in the 100-Mile Circle it can be seen basking or moving about in the water any month of the year.  Based on work outside of Arizona, courtship takes place in spring and fall, and nesting occurs from May to mid-July.  Four to 20 eggs are deposited in nests dug in sandy or loamy soils, usually within 200 m of water.  More than one clutch may be laid annually. The eggs hatch in 65-80 days, and in some areas hatchlings overwinter in the nest.  The hatchlings are about 27 mm carapace length, the carapace is round and keeled, and the markings are bold compared to the adults.  The sex of the hatchlings is dependent upon incubation temperature.  At the higher temperatures (30-32 C) only females are produced.   No confirmed breeding by Painted Turtles has been found in the Phoenix or Tucson areas, although breeding is suspected at the ponds at Papago Park in Phoenix.  Presence at some southern Arizona localities may be maintained by ongoing releases of unwanted pets.

The diet of the Painted Turtle includes a variety of aquatic invertebrates, salamanders, frogs, fish, carrion, and aquatic plants.  The species has been described as an omnivorous generalist.  Foraging occurs primarily in late morning and late afternoon.  A hunting license is required to take Painted Turtles in Arizona.  The IUCN’s Red List includes the Painted Turtle as a species of least concern.  If Painted Turtles were introduced to areas outside of Tucson and Phoenix in the 100-Mile Circle, they could pose a predation threat to native aquatic fauna.

Suggested Reading:

Brennan, T.C., and A.T. Holycross. 2006. Amphibians and Reptiles in Arizona. Arizona Game and Fish Department, Phoenix, AZ.

Ernst, C.H., and J.E. Lovich. 2009. Turtles of the United States and Canada (second edition). Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.

Jennings, M.R. 1987. Status of the western painted turtle (Chrysemys picta bellii) in Arizona. Journal of the Arizona-Nevada Academy of Science 22: 129-133.

Hulse, A.C. 1980. Notes on the occurrence of introduced turtles in Arizona. Herpetological Review 11(1):16-17.

Author: Jim Rorabaugh


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