Species: Midland painted turtle (Chrysemys picta marginata) OR Painted turtle (Chrysemys picta)
Favourite food: She likes meat and red fruits and veggies
How they got their name: Because she is a turtle and lives in her shell, we thought “Shelly” was fitting
Natural behaviours: They are amazing swimmers!
Favourite thing to do at the Earth Rangers Centre: Shelly loves taking a stroll outside in the grass, swimming in her pool and sun bathing
Here’s what Animal Trainer Amanda has to say about Shelly…
Shelly was brought to Earth Rangers after being rescued from a pet store! Painted turtles are native to Canada, which means they come from this area, and it is illegal to sell or keep any native wild animal as a pet. Since she got so used to being around humans, she couldn’t be released back into her natural habitat. Instead, she was brought to Earth Rangers and became one of my favourite animals on the Animal Ambassador team.
- When hibernating, Painted turtles can stay under water for up to five months, holding their breath longer than any other air-breathing vertebrate in the world
- They live in ponds, streams, lakes and rivers, with muddy bottoms around North America
- Painted turtles are diurnal; which means they are active during the day. At night, they will rest on the bottom of a pond or on a partially submerged object, such as a rock
- Females lay up to 15 eggs and the hatchlings’ gender is determined by the temperature of the nest
- They don’t have teeth and their tongues don’t move. In order to swallow food properly, Painted turtles have to be in water
- Conservation status: Least concern (IUCN, 2011), but some subspecies are endangered in Canada. They are threatened by habitat loss, invasive species, water pollution, human expansion, introduced diseases, and climate change
If you happen to see a turtle sitting in the sun near a pond somewhere in North America, chances are it is a Painted turtle. These are the most common turtles native to North America, living in areas all over the country.
Painted turtles are medium sized, growing 10-25 cm long, with dark skin and olive shells. They have red, orange and yellow lines on their skin and along the bottom of their shells. While the female’s body is slightly larger, male Painted turtles have longer claws and longer, thicker tails. Turtles are specially designed to make it easier to survive in the water. Their shells are flattened and sleek to reduce water resistance and they have webbed toes so their feet are like paddles.
Compared to most turtle species, Painted turtles tolerate the cold rather well. Like all reptiles, turtles are ectothermic, or cold-blooded, which means their body temperature is dependent on the temperature of the environment around them. The colder the temperature, the slower their metabolism, the less they move and the less they need to eat. When winter comes, turtles living in northern areas enter into a state of hibernation. For example, many species swim to the bottom of ponds, burying themselves in mud and resting. When it gets really cold, their hearts only beat once every 5-10 minutes and they can go without taking a breath of air for up to five months! Painted turtles can hold their breath longer than any other air-breathing vertebrate in the world.
Painted turtles live in freshwater with slow-moving currents, like ponds, marshes, creeks and along the shores of lakes. But not just any spot of water will do! They need the underwater ground to be soft and muddy for sleeping, to have plenty of aquatic vegetation for hiding and finding food, and their habitat also needs to have lots of places to bask in the sun.
Having good basking sites is very important for Painted turtles because they use them for up to six hours a day. Sitting in the sun warms their bodies and helps speed up their metabolism so they can digest food. Rocks and logs in the sun near the water make fantastic basking sites, and will often get many Painted turtle visitors in a day. If passing by a lake on a warm summer day with logs or rocks sticking out of the water, look for turtles because there is a good chance you will see some. If there are only a few basking spots available, the turtles will “share” by piling themselves on top of each other. When the weight gets to be too much for the turtles on the bottom, they will raise their back legs to shake off those on top, sending the turtle tower toppling!
While water is the most important component of a good Painted turtle habitat, they also need access to dry land. Females will wander as far as 150 m away from the water’s edge to dig nests and lay eggs in loose, warm sandy soil. Some subspecies, such as the Western Painted turtle, will travel over land to get from the pond where they breed to the pond where they hibernate.
While Painted turtles are an important predator of small aquatic animals, they are also a source of food for other animals. As adults, Painted turtles face only a few natural threats and can live to be 30 years old! Their survival has a lot of to do with their shell because it provides excellent protection and only a few animals have figured out how to get around it. Birds of prey, like Red-shouldered hawks or Bald eagles, will pick up turtles in their talons, fly to a great height, and let go—the fall usually cracks the turtle’s shell and the bird can fly down to retrieve the meal. Raccoons use their powerful jaws and human-like hands to pry turtles from their shells, and alligators can simply bite through the shell in one chomp. However, being well camouflaged and swift in the water, Painted turtles are not easy to catch, and will bite, scratch and urinate on their attackers to get away.
Turtle eggs and hatchlings, on the other hand, are much easier to catch because they can’t escape. The nests are raided and eggs eaten by skunks, raccoons, badgers, squirrels, foxes and crows, among others. The small hatchlings can easily become the victim of hungry herons, bass, bullfrogs, Snapping turtles, snakes, weasels and muskrats. Their vulnerability when young is one of the reasons so many turtles hatch at once and run as quickly as they can to nearby water. Due to the many dangers they face, relatively few will make it to adulthood, but hatching in large numbers helps increase the odds of some individuals surviving.
Painted turtles have a bit of a problem when it comes to eating. Their tongues are immovable, which means that they can’t move their tongue freely so they can’t control where their food goes. In order to swallow food properly, they have to be in water.
Painted turtles are omnivorous, meaning they eat plants and animals. When young, they feed mainly on meat. It isn’t until they are older that they develop the taste for plants. They eat snails, tadpoles, fish, insects, crayfish, algae, earthworms, vegetation and duckweed. When eating larger prey, or perhaps when feeding on carrion (dead animals), Painted turtles will grasp the food with their mouths and pull off smaller chunks to swallow by scratching pieces away with their claws. Interestingly, these turtles do not have teeth—instead, they use tough bony plates along their jaws to grip food.
The Painted turtle’s breeding season usually happens shortly after hibernation ends, when the water temperature is between 16°C and 24°C. For Painted turtles in Canada, mating tends to be around April or May, but might be earlier for turtles living in a more Southern area. Females will look for a nesting site a month or two later. They choose sites with sandy soil, but will also use gravel banks or even farmers’ fields if they aren’t too far from the water. Female Painted turtles will dig a hole for their nest and lay up to 15 eggs at a time, before they cover the eggs with sandy soil and abandon it. This might not seem like the best way to make sure their young survive, but Painted turtles are clever and don’t leave their babies completely defenseless. The moms will dig another few holes as false nests to trick predators. She will then make sure to hide its location by patting down the soil and even covering the spot with vegetation.
Nest temperature determines the gender of the hatchlings when they are born about two or three months later. In warmer nests, more females are born; cooler nests produce more males. Hatchlings are only about 25mm across, and emerge from the nest at night-time to make their way to the water. The hatchlings know where the water is because they can see light shining off the water’s surface. They have to move quickly if they don’t want to be snatched up by predators.
- Least concern (IUCN, 2011), some subspecies are endangered in Canada (COSEWIC, 2006)
- Most Painted turtles are threatened by habitat loss and human expansion (road mortality, light pollution), but also climate change, invasive species, water pollution, and introduced diseases
Painted turtles are losing their homes because wetlands are shrinking at an alarming rate. Wetlands are disappearing because of soil erosion, water pollution, drainage for agriculture and human development. In Canada we have lost 71% of our wetland habitat. Expansion of cities is also bringing more cars to the area and more turtles are getting hit, especially females looking for nesting sites.
Climate change is also a big threat to Painted turtle populations. Since gender is determined by temperature, hot weather caused by climate change will produce too many females, making it hard for them to find males for breeding. Light pollution is another issue. Since the young turtles find water by looking for light reflected off the surface, the artificial lights from cities, houses, cars and streetlights can easily confuse them.
These are some pretty serious threats but taking action to protect turtles isn’t hard. You can help improve the water quality of wetland habitats by putting your garbage in the right place and being more aware of what goes into the water system, not pouring chemicals like household paints down the drain. When cleaning around the house with water and soap, try to use eco-friendly cleaning products that won’t cause problems for water-loving animals like Painted turtles. Or, simply make it a rule to turn off lights you aren’t using at night to help reduce light pollution. By working together we can protect the Painted turtle’s habitat and give them a safe and healthy future.
References: IUCN Red List, Species at Risk Public Registry,Toronto Zoo, Gervais, Jennifer et al. “Conservation Assessment for the Western Painted Turtle in Oregon”. USDA Forest Service (2009), Blood, Donald A. and Malcolm Macartney. “Painted Turtle”. British Columbia Ministry of Environment, Lands and Parks (1998), Encyclopedia of Life