Western Painted Turtle
Other names: Emys bellii, Testudo picta
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 outer edge of the shell), as well as red and yellow stripes on the head and neck. The carapace is smooth and flat and may reach a length of over 20 to 26 centimetres in females, and 11 to 19 centimetres in males. The western painted turtle (Chrysemys picta bellii) has a yellow or dark tan plastron (lower shell) with a large, dark, irregular “butterfly” marking along the midline.
The midland painted turtle (C. p. marginata) is smaller in size and has a smaller marking – 13 to 57 percent of the plastron – than the western painted turtle, on which the marking is from 56 to 86 percent of the plastron. The western painted turtle occurs north and west of Lake Superior, whereas the midland painted turtle occurs east of Lake Superior.
In a zone of intergradation (where both subspecies occur) in the Algoma district, however, painted turtles consistently exhibit a plastron marking midway in size between that of C. p. bellii and C. p. marginata. Northern map turtles have a ridge (keel) down the middle of their carapace and serrations along the back edge of their shell. The introduced red-eared slider has patterning similar to that of the western painted turtle on the head and legs but also has one large red mark on each side of the head behind the eye.
Painted turtles inhabit ponds, wetlands, lakes, rivers and creeks with slow-moving water. They usually live in small bodies of water or sheltered bays that have a soft bottom and abundant basking sites and aquatic vegetation.
These turtles are commonly seen basking on logs, rocks or shorelines with easy access to the water. Painted turtles hibernate in the mud at the bottom of these waterbodies.
View an interactive map of the known ranges of western painted turtles in Ontario.
Painted turtles in northern populations may take 12 to 15 years for females, and seven to 10 years for males 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 four to 23 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 -10ºC, 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 over 50 years in the wild.
The western 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 makes the species susceptible to road mortality, poaching and persecution, which have contributed to the drastic decline of Ontario’s other seven turtle species.
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.
The Committee on the Status of Species at Risk in Ontario (2017) and the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (2016) has assessed the status of Ontario’s western painted turtle population as Not at Risk, and it is currently has No Schedule and No Status under the provincial Endangered Species Act or the federal Species at Risk Act. The species has been designated as a Specially Protected Reptile under the Ontario Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act, which offers some protection to individuals and their habitat. The International Union for Conservation of Nature has not assessed the global status of the western painted turtle, but lists the painted turtle (of which the western painted turtle is a subspecies) as Least Concern. The painted turtle’s status was last confirmed in August 2010.
Learn more about reptile and amphibian conservation and what you can do to help these species on our Reptile and Amphibian Stewardship page.