Story by Kenneth Boone
Painted turtles, like American toads, dragonflies and lightning bugs, are among the native wild animals that play a big role in many Southern children’s lives. Most children have, at one time or another, played with painted turtles. Many have kept them as pets.
The brightly colored turtles – their skin and shells are a striped collection of red, orange, yellow, black, green and tan – are not as slow as a bed-time story might lead youngsters to believe, but they are certainly catchable. They’re easy to neutralize with a mid-shell grip. And the generally mild-mannered painted turtles usually retreat inside their shell when there’s a hint of danger … making them even easier to catch and ensuring their place in childhood memories. These turtles do have the ability to turn themselves over if placed on their backs, which can make “lost turtles” a teary childhood memory as well.
Painted turtles are the most common turtles found in North America, living mostly north and east of a diagonal line from Washington state to Louisiana. Wild painted turtles are not often found in the western states (although there are isolated populations in Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas) or, interestingly, in Florida.
While they can be spotted around any water in our area, from Lake Martin to farm ponds, swamps, creeks and rivers, these turtles prefer shallow, slow-moving water with a thick muddy or sandy bottom. On the lake that means sloughs. Scores can be seen sunning on a backwater floating log, sometimes stacked one atop another. Painted turtles across America have been recorded in population densities of between 2.5-300 per acre of water.
Although painted turtles are still out during the Indian summer days of fall, they spend the coldest part of the year burrowed in soft mud underwater. These turtles do breathe air through their nostrils, but they are also able to absorb oxygen through their skin. In fact, painted turtles routinely take in oxygen both ways, breathing air during the day when they basking in the sun and absorbing oxygen through their skin at night as they are sleeping under the lake floor.
Painted turtles in our area are usually 4-7 inches long, with a smooth, oval shell that has no midline ridge. The top shell is black to green depending on the subspecies, and the flat bottom shell is usually yellow.
The turtle’s skin is black to dull green with racy red and yellow stripes on its neck, feet and tail. Its face is striped mostly with yellow and there are broader stripes or blotches of color behind its eye and on its jaw.
These turtles have nostrils placed on the tip of its nose – giving it a low profile in the water – and a sharp beak. Male painted turtles have very long claws on their front feet, while female front claws are noticeably shorter. The male turtles also have a larger tail with the anus located outside the edge of the top shell, while the female turtles tail is thinner and shorter and its anus is located closer to the base, near the back edge of the bottom shell.
The painted turtle, Chrysemys picta, has been around for quite a while. Scientists have found fossils of painted turtles in Nebraska dated at 15 million years old.
There are four subspecies of painted turtles in North America, the eastern, midland, southern and western painted turtles. The southern painted turtle is easily identified by the red, orange or yellow line that runs lengthwise across top of its shell. The eastern painted turtles are identified by a primarily black top shell with segments called “scutes” that form mostly straight lines across its back. All other North American turtles – including the three other painted turtle subspecies – have alternating scutes on their shells, with seams arranged more like those between sections of a soccer ball.
Eastern Alabama is an area where the eastern and southern subspecies of painted turtles sometimes mix, and that appears to be the case in the Tallapoosa County painted turtle pictured in this article. Its shell has both a reddish-yellow center line and shell segments that form relatively straight lines across its back.
Since they are cold-blooded animals, painted turtles spend lots of time basking to raise their body temperature to 63-73 degrees, which allows them to become active. In the painted turtle world, “active” usually means hunting for dinner on the lake bottom. When they get cold again, these turtles head back to the surface to soak up more rays and warm up for another foraging underwater trip.
Painted turtles are omnivores, eating a mixture of plant and animal foods that changes through the turtle’s life. Baby turtles eat mostly animals, while older turtles become more fond of plant material as they mature. Wild turtle food includes snails, slugs, crawfish, insects, fish (usually injured or dead), tadpoles, carrion, aquatic plants and algae. When a turtle catches live creatures, it will hold the prey in its mouth and use its front claws to tear it apart.
These turtles are on a number of wild animal diets, including eagles, crows, hawks, ospreys and raccoons. Baby painted turtles are eaten by even more animals, such as bass, catfish, snakes, herons, and even water bugs. Turtle eggs are eaten by still more predators, including squirrels, fox, groundhogs, chipmunks and snakes. Painted turtles that avoid being eaten can live up to 55 years in the wild, though very few do.
The painted turtles have an unusual and elegant courtship behavior that depends greatly on … the weather. Mating season begins when the water is still cold, from 50-77 degrees in the spring and sometimes in the fall.
To begin the courtship, a male turtle will slowly swim behind the female and eventually swim past her and turn around to face her head-on. He then uses the long claws on his front legs to stroke her head and neck in a “trembling motion.” If the female is interested, she will reach out and stroke his claws with her front claws. The couple may swim apart and get back together several times for more petting sessions before they sink to the bottom of the pond and mate underwater.
When the female’s internal temperature hits 84-86 degrees she will search out a place with moist soil near the water and will use her hind legs dig out a nest 2-4 inches deep. There the southern painted turtles will lay handful of white, malleable, oval eggs, usually four or five in number. The process usually takes about four hours and concludes this mother’s child-raising duties.
At this point, the weather plays an even more far-reaching role in the reproduction process.
If it’s hot – higher than 87 degrees F – the incubating eggs will produce all male turtles. If it’s cooler than 77 degrees, all the eggs will hatch as females. However, if it’s in between 77-87 degrees outside, ideally 84 degrees, then both male and females will break out of their eggs.
In any case, about 76 days after the eggs are deposited, the young painted turtles hatch out (with the help of an egg tooth that drops off a few days) fully independent and ready to take on the world. Painted turtle genders mature at different rates, with males becoming sexually mature in two to four years and females hitting maturity six to 10 years after hatching.
These turtles are capable of laying up to five clutches of eggs a year, although two is common.
These baby turtles are more brightly colored than their elders and are tough … it’s reported that they can even survive being nearly frozen.
While painted turtles make excellent pets – for children and adults – like many other reptiles, these turtles may carry Salmonella bacteria in their guts, which can make people very ill. So if you chose to relive your childhood and physically reconnect with a painted turtle, it’s smart to wash your hands afterward.