Southern Painted Turtle

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

A colorful aquatic turtle and the smallest painted turtle in North America. The upper shell is olive brown to almost black, with a prominent orange, red, or yellow stripe running down the center of the upper shell. It’s the only painted turtle with the stripe. The outer edge of the shell is often orange, orange-red, or yellow. The lower shell is plain yellow; sometimes there is a faint brown blotch along the center.

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


Upper shell length: 4–5 inches.

Where To Find
Southern Painted Turtle Distribution Map

Only in the southeastern corner of Missouri.

Prefers still, quiet water of shallow swamps, streams, sloughs, and oxbow lakes. Also requires numerous basking sites. Because it is limited to our southeastern swamps, it is important to preserve what is left of that habitat in our state.

Aquatic invertebrates, such as snails, crayfish, and insects, make up the bulk of this turtle’s food, but some plant materials are also consumed.

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 to preserve those Bootheel swamps that remain. This species used to be considered a subspecies of painted turtle (Chrysemys picta dorsalis) but has been raised to full species status.

Life Cycle

Courtship and mating take place in shallow water from April to June. Females laden with eggs will leave water and search for a suitable place to dig a nest and lay eggs. A south-facing, gentle slope with loose dirt or sand and some low vegetation is ideal. The average clutch has 4 eggs, and hatching occurs in 8–9 weeks.

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.

This turtle’s small size probably arose from competition with other turtles in the same area. Their special size allows them to utilize a niche that is usually not occupied by larger, similar turtles. Though the shell protects adults from predators, young and eggs are vulnerable.

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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.