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With their distinct coloration, pattern, and distribution range, eastern painted turtles are unique among other painted turtles and even other pond turtles. Photo credit: Thinkstock.
Of all the different turtle species available in the hobby today, with all their color and pattern varieties, the eastern painted turtle is arguably one of the most beautiful and personable.
Richly deserving of their common name, the painted turtles of the genus Chrysemys display a full palette of vibrant colors arranged in elaborate patterns. Although the taxonomy of this group fluctuates on occasion , it is generally accepted that there are two valid species: the common painted turtle (Chrysemys picta) and the southern painted turtle (C. dorsalis). The common painted turtle is further divided into three subspecies: the eastern painted turtle (C. p. picta), the midland painted turtle (C. p. marginata) and the western painted turtle (C. p. bellii).
The eastern painted turtle possesses highly contrasting and striking coloration and patterning. The carapace ranges from deep brown to black, very often with wide cream or yellow bars along the scute seams. A unique feature of the eastern painted turtle is the lateral alignment of these scute seams, which is not found in any other species of turtle in the world. The plastron of this subspecies is rather nondescript, with a base coloration of yellow to pale orange. It is typically immaculate, or at most bears a small dark patch in the center toward the rear. The head is striped with bright yellow and cream, similar in shade to the bars on the carapace. The colorful stripes on the feet and tail range from bright orange to red, and the darker stripes are normally black.
Sexual dimorphism is noticeable but not exaggerated in the eastern painted turtle. As with all painted turtle species and subspecies, mature males possess elongated foreclaws and a longer, thicker tail than their female counterparts, with the vent posterior of the carapace rim. Coloration is generally identical between the sexes, but mature males from some of the more northerly populations may develop a melanistic appearance in which the bright colors fade and darken. In general, males are also slightly smaller than females and tend to be narrower in width. There are reports of C. p. picta reaching 8 inches in straight carapace length (SCL), but most individuals do not exceed 7 inches.
Up and Down the Seaboard
The common painted turtle's natural range extends across the entire North American continent, making it the only species to be found from the Atlantic Coast to the Pacific Coast.
The eastern painted turtle's range is restricted to the Atlantic seaboard, from New Brunswick in Canada to Georgia in the United States. It is present in Nova Scotia and occurs southward along the Atlantic coast through New England into North Carolina, and then westward through western South Carolina and northern Georgia. The turtle is entirely absent from southern North Carolina, coastal South Carolina and southern Georgia, and does not penetrate inland beyond any of the Atlantic coastal provinces or states.
Chrysemys p. picta intergrades with the midland painted turtle in western New Hampshire, Massachusetts, adjacent New York and much of Pennsylvania, and the southern painted turtle in eastern Alabama.
Life in the Wild
Across its range, the eastern painted turtle shows a fondness for slow-moving or still water. Lakes, ponds and small streams with soft bottoms, abundant aquatic vegetation and ample basking sites are preferred. In some coastal locations it has even been found in brackish water environments. Although the eastern painted turtle's activity is seasonal, it is active and even basks throughout the year when conditions are favorable. Capable of prolonged periods of hibernation during the winter, it sometimes remains dormant for as long as seven months at a time. Likewise, it may aestivate for extended periods during extreme heat or drought, but it seems considerably more tolerant of extended hibernation.
While a typical aestivation period of a month or two may have little measurable effect on healthy C. p. picta populations, periods of four months or more have resulted in high mortality rates. In general, painted turtles are known to move about on land to migrate from one location to another, and under desperate circumstances, they will abandon a declining habitat to find a more favorable one.
The eastern painted turtle natural diet includes a wide variety of plants and animals, including leafy plants, algae, many types of invertebrates and their larvae. They've been known to feed on virtually anything edible. Fish are readily eaten live, if the turtle is able to catch them, or dead if encountered as carrion while foraging. Amphibians are also on the menu if the opportunity to eat any ever presents itself.
|Dynamic Taxonomy |
At the time of writing, it is accepted that Chrysemys picta and Chrysemys dorsalis are separate species. Several authorities have split Chrysemys dorsalis off from Chrysemys picta, and this split, as well as the retention of C. p. marginata and C.p. bellii as subspecies of Chrysemys picta, has been supported by a number of subsequent authors. Of course taxonomy is a very dynamic science, and this may change.
Life in Captivity
Eastern painted turtles make excellent pets, and their coloration, temperament and relatively small size (in comparison to cooters and sliders) have endeared them to countless turtle fanciers. Providing them with captive accommodations that parallel their natural environment will ensure their health and longevity.
Although they are excellent swimmers, smaller specimens are better suited to fairly shallow water. Just make sure the water is deep enough so that an overturned turtle is able to right itself and doesn't risk drowning. The general rule of thumb is to never keep an aquatic turtle in water less than one and a half times the turtle's SCL. So, for example, an appropriate water depth for a 2-inch turtle would be 3 inches, and for a 6-inch turtle, no less than 9 inches. A single adult eastern painted turtle can be kept in a 50-gallon tank. Provide a minimum additional 10 to 15 gallons for each additional adult.
Eastern painted turtles are active animals and will readily utilize the full volume of their tank. For this reason, they should be provided as large a tank as possible. Outdoor ponds are ideal for them as long as they are equipped with adequate protection from predators, seasonal extremes and escape. Subadult and adult turtles can readily occupy deep water, and maintaining them in depths of several feet is possible. Plastic and/or live plants can and should be added to the tank or pond for climbing and hiding, but live plants will usually be stripped down to fragments as the turtles nibble on them.
Regardless of turtle size and water depth, suitable basking areas must be provided if the turtles are to remain healthy and vigorous. Basking stimulates metabolism to facilitate digestion and bolster the turtle's immune system. It also allows the skin to dry completely, which is mandatory for these turtles to shed their skin properly. Failing to provide adequate basking accommodations will lead to a whole host of potential health problems. Some of these diseases include skin infections, shell rot and ear abscesses, just to name a few. Natural and artificial stone, driftwood and even commercially manufactured platforms can be arranged in stable configurations to provide adequate basking sites. Creative arrangements also contribute to the aesthetic appeal of their habitat.
Despite their ability to endure extreme temperatures in the wild, it is not necessary to artificially hibernate or aestivate eastern painted turtles in captivity. They will typically adjust their behavior according to small seasonal fluctuations in an indoor setting, but maintain temperatures within acceptable parameters to prevent undue stress (see the temperature sidebar on the opposite page).
|Riding Piggyback |
Eastern painted turtles are gregarious baskers, and they will often pack a favorable basking location, sometimes stacking themselves three or four deep while jockeying for better access to the sun's warming rays. In addition to heating their bodies to stimulate digestion and metabolism, C.p. picta's basking routine also allows the skin to dry thoroughly, loosening the foothold of parasites and allowing shedding skin to properly slough. They are a communal species, sharing their basking perches with other species, and can readily be seen in conjunction with cooters, sliders, map turtles, and any other species occurring in their habitat.
Given that captive eastern painted turtles readily accept commercially manufactured pelleted food, a specialized diet is not necessary. To provide your painted turtles with the best nutrition, select a brand that offers a 30- to 40-percent protein content, a fat content that is less than 20 percent, and a calcium-to-phosphate ratio of at least 2:1. Additional treats can be provided several times per month and may include earthworms, crickets, feeder fish, bloodworms, blackworms and various leafy greens, including romaine, redleaf, greenleaf, endive, escarole and kale.
While nothing substitutes for direct, unfiltered sunlight, it is not always practical to provide captive turtles a basking spot with such exposure. There are numerous varieties of light bulbs available commercially that will produce a suitable range of ultraviolet light to facilitate vitamin D3 synthesis, which is crucial to calcium metabolism and subsequently healthy bone and shell growth. Just be sure that the selected bulb provides UVB wavelengths, as UVA alone is inadequate and essentially useless for vitamin D3 synthesis. If you're providing direct sunlight to meet these needs, take great care to prevent overheating by offering turtles places that provide shade.
Breeding Painted Beauties
For the ambitious and patient keeper, there is the option of breeding eastern painted turtles in captivity.
Males and females may be housed together if provided with ample space, but monitor behavior closely at first introduction and at regular intervals during the spring breeding season. Separate antagonistic animals at the first signs of aggression, and reintroduce them only for brief periods for breeding under careful supervision. Eastern painted turtles are not normally considered an aggressive species, but it is always better to err on the side of caution. An adult pair can be safely housed in a 75-gallon tank, but 100 gallons or more is preferable.
Once successful copulation has occurred, the gestation period is brief and the female will usually be ready to nest within a month or two. Weather, temperature, stress, food availability and some biological/physiological factors can all influence gestation period. A precise gestation period is not known, but the presence of shelled eggs can be detected by palpation. While holding the female in a head-up orientation, f4ingers can be gently inserted into the inguinal cavity (the space between the hind legs and the bridge of the shell). Gravid females may also cease feeding and/or spend excessive time basking or attempting to get out of the tank. Effort should be made to provide a nest box, but if this is not practical, then supervised walks can be permitted in the yard to allow gravid females the opportunity to nest naturally. If this option is not successful or not possible, egg deposition can be induced under the care of an experienced reptile veterinarian.
Female eastern painted turtles will routinely produce two clutches of eggs per season. Occasionally, a third and even fourth clutch is possible, but the number of eggs decreases with each subsequent clutch. Typical clutches consist of four to 10 eggs ranging in size from 1 inch long and three-quarters of an inch wide, up to 11/2 inches long and 1 inch wide. Egg size and clutch density are directly proportional to a female's size, with larger females producing larger eggs and larger clutches.
Eastern painted turtle eggs can be incubated in a number of ways, but one consistently successful technique utilizes damp sphagnum moss as a substrate. Elaborate and expensive incubators are not necessary, and in some instances even detrimental to the development of the embryos. Forced-air-type incubators make humidity control difficult, bordering on impossible, and I do not recommend them for this turtle. Simple, wafer-type thermostats have proven very reliable, and I recommend them for their ease of use. I also recommend primary and backup thermometers to ensure that the incubation temps remain in the optimal 82- to 86-degrees-Fahrenheit range for healthy embryo development and hatching. The sphagnum moss substrate can be remoistened as required to prevent desiccation and developmental failure of the eggs.
After roughly 60 days, beads of water will form on the eggs' surface, and they will begin to "sweat" within a short time of hatching. Hatchlings may take several hours to several days to emerge fully from their eggs. Depending on the size of the residual yolk sac, they should remain in the incubator long enough for full absorption. Afterward, they may be removed from the incubator and set up as described previously.
Unique and Beautiful
With their distinct coloration, pattern, and distribution range, eastern painted turtles are unique among other painted turtles and even other pond turtles. Their inquisitive and sociable nature, and their brilliant coloration, make them true works of art that should be welcome in any collection. REPTILES
Paul Vander Schouw is an avid turtle hobbyist from Florida. A mechanical engineer by profession, he has about 1,000 individual turtles, representing more than 100 species and subspecies.