Michigan State University masthead

painted turtle

painted turtle
Chrysemys picta

Image of midland painted turtleDescription

This is a common, small, dark-shelled turtle with a yellow-striped head and red and yellow stripes on the neck, legs, and tail. The smooth black or olive carapace has red markings along the edge, especially underneath the marginal scutes. The plastron is usually yellow, sometimes tinged with red, with a long, dark central blotch. In some specimens this blotch is nearly absent, while in the western subspecies (see "Distribution and Status") the blotch is wider and more complicated and extends along the seams between the scutes. Males are smaller and have longer front claws than females.

Adult Carapace Length:

4 to 7 inches (10 to 18 cm).

Record Length:

9.8 inches (25 cm): Western subspecies.

Habitat and Habits

Ponds, lakes, marshes, and slow-moving streams and rivers are all homes to painted turtles. They prefer shallow water with a muddy bottom and ample aquatic vegetation, and often move overland to find suitable habitat. Many are killed while attempting to cross roads. Painted turtles seem to be fairly tolerant of organic pollution and survive even in urban areas. They feed in water on a variety of foods, including aquatic plants, insects, snails, crayfish, tadpoles, small fish, and carrion.

Image of midland painted turtle (juvenile)Reproduction

During courtship, a male painted turtle will swim backward in front of his intended mate, "tickling" her head and neck with his long front claws. Most mating occurs in the spring. Females nest from late May into July, seeking sunny sites with slightly moist sand or soil near the water. The female lays from 4 to 20 (usually 7 or 8) elliptical, soft-shelled eggs in the nest cavity and carefully covers them. The eggs hatch in about 70 to 80 days, but baby painted turtles from late nests often remain in the ground over the winter and emerge in spring. The inch-long (2.54 cm) hatchlings survive the sub-freezing nest temperatures by producing a type of natural antifreeze in their bodies.

Range and Status

Painted turtles are the most common Michigan turtles. Two subspecies occur in the state. The midland painted turtle (Chrysemys picta marginata) is found throughout the Lower Peninsula and the eastern and central Upper Peninsula. The western painted turtle (Chrysemys picta belli) enters Michigan in the western Upper Peninsula. Many painted turtles in the UP are intermediate between the midland and western forms (determined by the extent of the dark pattern on the plastron).

midland painted turtle (male)Acknowledgement

James Harding
MSU Museum
Michigan State University
East Lansing, MI 48824
(517) 353-7978