This brightly colored, small, semiaquatic turtle has a smooth upper shell. The general color of the upper shell is olive, olive brown, or nearly black; usually there are yellow, irregular lines and a reddish-orange outer edge. The lower shell is red-orange with a prominent pattern of brown markings that follows the scute seams toward the outer edge. The head and legs may be dark brown or black and strongly patterned with yellow lines.
Similar species: The southern painted turtle (Chrysemys dorsalis) is found in the Bootheel region (where the western painted turtle is not found). It is similar, but has a prominent lengthwise orange, red, or yellow stripe down the upper shell. The lower shell is plain yellow. The red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans) has a red “ear” stripe and a yellow lower shell with a dark blotch in each scute.
Upper shell length: 3 to 7 inches.
Occurs statewide, especially in prairie regions; absent from our southeastern counties.
Habitat and Conservation
This turtle spends much time basking on logs. In Missouri, this species may occur in slow-moving rivers, sloughs, oxbow lakes, ponds, and drainage ditches. Habitat requirements include ample mud at the bottom, abundant aquatic vegetation, and basking sites such as logs or half-submerged rocks.
This turtle eats aquatic plants, snails, crayfish, insects, and some fish. The young reportedly eat more animal material than adults.
This species is usually active from late March to October. Courtship and mating occur in shallow water from April to June. Egg-laden females leave the water to search for a suitable place to dig a nest, such as a gentle, south-facing slope with loose dirt or sand and some low vegetation. Eggs are laid in mid-May through July. There can be 4–20 eggs per clutch, and these hatch in about 8–9 weeks. Hatchlings stay underground until spring if the eggs were laid late in summer.
Painted turtles appear in Native American legends and are beloved by many people. They are often kept as pets in captivity, but a great many of those die due to improper care, including specific food, lighting, water, and heating needs. In some parts of the world, they are an invasive species.
Though the hard shell protects adults from predators, young and eggs are vulnerable to a wide array of predators. What explains the bright colors? It turns out that turtles have good color vision, so unique colors and patterns probably help them recognize members of their own species.