Southern Painted Turtle

Photo of a southern painted turtle basking on a log.
Scientific Name
Chrysemys dorsalis
Emydidae (pond and box turtles) in the order Testudines (turtles)

The southern painted turtle is a small, colorful aquatic turtle. the carapace (upper shell) is smooth, olive brown to almost black, with a prominent yellow, orange, or red lengthwise stripe down the center. The outer edge of the carapace is yellow or orange. The plastron (lower shell) is plain yellow or tan; some individuals may have a faint brown blotch along the center. Exposed skin is dark brown or black and strongly patterned with yellow lines. The lines on the neck and forelimbs can be orange or red.

Similar species: The western painted turtle (Chrysemys picta bellii) is found through most of the rest of the state. It is similar, but it lacks the prominent lengthwise shell stripe. The lower shell has intricate dark markings that follow the plate seams outward from the center.

Less closely related are some other members of the pond and box turtle family. Ones that also occur in Missouri's Bootheel region include the western chicken turtle, Ouachita map turtle, northern false map turtle and Mississippi map turtle, eastern river cooter, and red-eared slider.


Adult upper shell length: 4–5 inches; occasionally to 6 inches. This turtle is the smallest member in its genus.

Where To Find
Southern Painted Turtle Distribution Map

In Missouri, only occurs in the Mississippi Alluvial Basin in the southeastern part of the state.

This species is usually active from late March into early November. It resides in the quiet water of shallow swamps, slow-moving streams, sloughs, oxbow lakes, and occasionally drainage ditches with aquatic vegetation and soft bottoms. The preferred habitats are wetlands embedded within bottomland forest dominated by water tupelo, bald cypress, and oak species.

Because this species is limited to our southeastern swamps, it is important to preserve what is left of that habitat in our state.

Southern painted turtles are often seen basking on logs, rocks, vegetation, and along banks. It is common to see many individuals basking on a single log, and they will readily take to the water with only slight disturbance.

Southern painted turtles are occasionally seen crossing roads during the spring and early summer.

Adults overwinter in the deeper parts of wetlands, usually buried under the soft bottom mud.

Food consists mainly of aquatic insects, snails, crayfish, and plant material, with duckweed and algae readily consumed. Younger individuals consume more animal food in their diet compared to older adults.

Although this species is considered common in Missouri, local populations have likely declined due to loss of wetland habitat and removal of bottomland forest.

This species used to be considered a subspecies of painted turtle (Chrysemys picta), but it has been raised to full species status based on genetic evidence.

Life Cycle

Courtship and mating apparently take place in the water during the fall. Females laden with eggs will leave water and search for a suitable place to dig a nest and lay eggs. A south-facing slope with loose soils is preferred. The average clutch has 4 eggs, and females may produce 2 or more clutches. Hatching occurs in about 9–11 weeks. In some cases, the hatchlings might overwinter in the nest chamber and emerge the following spring. Males become mature in two or three years, while females become mature in four.

Painted turtles are often kept as pets in captivity, however a great many of those die due to improper care, including specific food, lighting, water, and heating needs. But in nature, these colorful turtles take care of themselves, brightening their swampy homes as they bask in the sun.

As a turtle that is limited to our southeastern swamps, this is a species that relies on that particular habitat for its survival. Therefore, it is important for people to preserve those Bootheel swamps that remain. This colorful turtle is far from the only species to rely on Bootheel wetland habitats; protecting those places for one species protects them for all.

This turtle’s small size possibly arose from competition with other turtles that live in the same habitats and geographic range. Their reduced size allows them to use a niche that is usually not occupied by larger semiaquatic turtles.

Although the shell protects adults from predators, young and eggs are vulnerable.

The southern painted turtle is a member of family Emydidae (the pond and box turtle family). This is one of the largest families of living turtles in the world. It comprises 12 genera, containing 52 species. In general, turtles in this family are small to medium sized and are adapted to a variety of habitats. This family includes several colorful species. Although the majority of species are aquatic (such as the eastern river cooter), several kinds are either semiaquatic or have taken to life on land (for example, the box turtles). In Missouri, this family is represented by 7 genera with a total of 11 species and 1 additional subspecies.

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Similar Species
About Reptiles and Amphibians in Missouri
Missouri’s herptiles comprise 43 amphibians and 75 reptiles. Amphibians, including salamanders, toads, and frogs, are vertebrate animals that spend at least part of their life cycle in water. They usually have moist skin, lack scales or claws, and are ectothermal (cold-blooded), so they do not produce their own body heat the way birds and mammals do. Reptiles, including turtles, lizards, and snakes, are also vertebrates, and most are ectothermal, but unlike amphibians, reptiles have dry skin with scales, the ones with legs have claws, and they do not have to live part of their lives in water.