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Photo by: Michael Bloxom
SCIENTIFIC NAME: Chrysemys picta
SUBSPECIES: Chrysemys picta picta – Eastern painted turtle
Chrysemys picta dorsalis – Southern painted turtle
Chrysemys picta marginata – Midland painted turtle
DESCRIPTION: A small turtle reaching up to ten inches in length. The carapace (top of shell) is olive to black with yellow or red borders on seams and red marking on the marginal scutes (bony plates or scales on the shell); a medial red or yellow stripe is variably present. The plastron (what one would call the belly) is yellow and may exhibit a dark blotch. The neck, legs, and tail are striped with red and yellow, while the head exhibits complex yellow markings that include large spots behind the eyes. Upper jaw is notched. Color patterns vary among subspecies.
The eastern subspecies averages five to seven inches in length and is unique in that the vertebral and costal scutes run virtually parallel, so the light bordered seams are aligned across the carapace. The seams alternate on all other North American turtles. The plastron is usually yellow.
The southern subspecies is the smallest of the group averaging five inches in length. It features a conspicuous red, orange, or yellow stripe running the length of the carapace, and has a plain yellow plastron.
The midland subspecies also averages five to seven inches and has dark borders around its alternating carapacial seams, relatively ornate marginal scutes and a dark blotch on its plastron.
DISTRIBUTION: Locally abundant in Alabama, the painted turtle is one of the most widespread turtles in North America. The Eastern subspecies occurs in the Chattahoochee drainage system in the east-central part of the state. The southern subspecies has the largest distribution in Alabama in the western half of the state from the Tennessee River system to Mobile Bay, while the midland subspecies occurs in the extreme northeast corner of the state. Intergrades exhibit a mix of characteristics where their ranges overlap.
HABITAT: Painted turtles occur in slow-moving, shallow streams, rivers and lakes. They prefer locations with soft bottoms, plenty of vegetation, and suitable basking sites such as half-submerged logs or rocks.
As mentioned above, these turtles are fond of basking and often dozens can be seen on a single log, sometimes stacked on top of each other in several layers. This sunning helps them to eliminate parasitic leeches and maintain their preferred body temperature. However, the turtles will dive quickly at the first sign of danger. They can also retract their head and legs into their shell for protection from predators.
FEEDING HABITS: Painted turtles feed on plants, and small animals such as fish, snails, slugs, crayfish, tadpoles, carrion and aquatic insects. Young painted turtles are carnivorous, but become more herbaceous as adults. They will feed opportunistically on almost any available food item. Because they have no teeth, their jaw has tough, horny plates for gripping food.
LIFE HISTORY AND ECOLOGY: Painted turtles are diurnal (active during the day), spending the nights sleeping on the pond bottom or on a partially submerged object. They become active at sunrise and bask for several hours before foraging for food in the late morning. They may forage again in late afternoon or early evening.
Nesting occurs from May to mid-July. The female will prepare a flask-shaped nest, about four inches deep, in slightly moist soils at a sunny site near water. Females lay two to four clutches per year, with each clutch containing two to 20 eggs. However, they may not reproduce every year, depending on habitat and body conditions. Once they lay their eggs, they cover the hole and leave, having nothing else to do with the nest. The young hatch and dig out of the nest on their own, and are independent immediately.
Incubation averages 10 to 11 weeks. The gender of the hatchlings is determined during a critical phase of incubation and is dependant on temperature. Temperatures under about 84°F produce males and higher temperatures produce females. At the pivotal temperature of about 84°F, both males and females are produced.
Hatchlings have a keeled shell and an abdominal fold, both of which disappear as they grow. Their shell colors and markings are brighter and more pronounced than those of adults. Male turtles reach maturity in two-five years and females in four to eight. They may live as long as 35 to 40 years in captivity, but most will not survive for this long. A variety of predators such as raccoons, otters, mink and foxes, will prey on painted turtles and their eggs.
Knopf, Alfred A. 1979. The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Reptiles and Amphibians. Chanticleer Press, Inc. New York. 743 pp.
Mount, Robert H. 1975. The Reptiles and Amphibians of Alabama. Auburn Printing Company, Alabama. 347 pp.
Dr. Heather A. Jamniczky, Dr. Anthony P. Russell, University of Calgary, 2007, "Chrysemys picta" (On-line), Digital Morphology. Accessed November 29, 2007 at http://digimorph.org/specimens/Chrysemys_picta
Knipper, K. 2002. "Chrysemys picta" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed November 29, 2007 at http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/site/accounts/information/Chrysemys_picta.html.
Cohen, Mary. “The Painted Turtle, Chrysemys picta (On-line), Accessed November 29, 2007 at http://www.tortoise.org/archives/chrysemy.html
Author: Marisa Lee, Wildlife Biologist, Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries, December 2007.
See the April 2011 Outdoor Alabama magazine article