There are three subspecies of painted turtle in Canada, two of which occur in Ontario.
All painted turtles have an olive to black carapace (upper shell) with red or dark orange markings on the marginal scutes (enlarged scales on the shell), as well as red and yellow stripes on the head and neck. The carapace is broad, smooth and flat, and generally reaches a length of 12 to 14 centimetres, but one individual has been measured at 19.5 centimetres.
The midland painted turtle has a yellow or dark tan plastron (lower shell) with a darker, irregular “butterfly” marking along the midline.
No other Ontario turtle species has red or orange markings on the sides of the carapace. The western subspecies (C. p. bellii) is larger than the midland painted turtle, has a much larger butterfly marking on the plastron and is geographically distinct, being limited to areas north and west of Lake Superior in Ontario.
Map turtles have stripes similar to those of the midland painted turtle but lack the red or orange markings on the shell. The introduced red-eared slider is also striped like the midland painted turtle but has a red spot on each side of the head.
Painted turtles inhabit waterbodies, such as ponds, marshes, lakes and slow-moving creeks, that have a soft bottom and provide abundant basking sites and aquatic vegetation. These turtles often bask on shorelines or on logs and rocks that protrude from the water. The midland painted turtle hibernates on the bottom of waterbodies.
View an interactive map of the known ranges of midland painted turtles in Ontario.
Painted turtles in northern populations may take up to six years for males and six to ten years for females to reach sexual maturity. Females nest from late May to early July, digging their nest in loamy or sandy soil in sunny areas. The clutch contains from three to 14 eggs. Hatchlings may emerge in the fall but sometimes overwinter in the nest and emerge the following spring. They can survive temperatures as low as -9ºC, because they contain a biological “antifreeze” that prevents their tissues from freezing. The temperature of the nest during incubation determines the sex of the offspring.
Painted turtles are largely diurnal (active during the day, rather than at night). Individuals sometimes move long distances overland from one waterbody to another or in search of nesting sites. These turtles are opportunistic feeders and eat algae, invertebrates, fish, frogs, carrion and vegetation. Some individuals live for 30 to 40 years in the wild.
Threats and Trends
The midland painted turtle is abundant throughout much of its range, and most populations appear to be relatively stable. Nonetheless, its long-lived life history and the type of habitat it uses make the species susceptible to the same threats that have caused the decline of Ontario’s other seven turtle species.
Loss, degradation and fragmentation of habitat have caused populations of the midland painted turtle to decline or disappear. Nest predation, particularly by raccoons, foxes and skunks, increases where human activities inadvertently encourage high populations of such predators. As is the case with many turtle species, nesting females are highly vulnerable to road mortality, because they use the soft shoulders of roads as nest sites.
Current Status and Protection
The midland painted turtle is currently listed as Special Concern under the federal Species at Risk Act (2018) and has yet to be assessed by the Committee on the Status of Species at Risk in Ontario. The species has been designated as a Specially Protected Reptile under the Ontario Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act which offers protection to individuals but not their habitat.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature has not listed the global status of the midland painted turtle. The species’ status was last confirmed in 2010. Additional detail about legal protection for species at risk in Ontario is available on our Legal Protection page.
Learn more about reptile and amphibian conservation and what you can do to help these species on our Reptile and Amphibian Stewardship page.