This is an article on painted turtles I wrote for Focus On Wildlife, my column for Maine Woodland Owners.
Painted turtles seem to be everywhere in May and June. We see them in and on the sides of the road often in June while females are digging nests and laying eggs. They’re the most wide-spread native turtle in the United States, and the four sub-species cover the country. The painted turtle is a pond turtle with a 15-million-year history on the planet. When they aren’t on the road we’re most likely to see them basking in the sun or swimming in lakes and ponds. If we’re lucky, we find one in our woodlots now and then.
Painted turtles are five to seven inches long, the females being about an inch longer than the males. The male’s tail and claws are slightly longer and thicker than the female. Their shells are smooth except when, as you see in the photo, they’re shedding scutes. The old scute peels away to make way for a new, larger scute as the shell grows. The top shell is olive green to black, and the female’s shell is slightly rounder and wider than the males. The bottom shell, called the plastron, is pale yellow to tan. The female’s plastron is flat but the male’s is a slightly concave to allow balance on top of her shell during mating season. Yellow, red and orange stripes make these turtles stand out.
Mating occurs in spring and again in fall starting when they reach maturity. That could be as early as two years for males but usually at least six years for females. Maturity is determined by diet. A healthy diet leads to faster growth and reproduction. It might take as long as nine years for a male and 16 for a female. With a 50+ year lifespan, that doesn’t seem too terribly long. They lay eggs from spring to mid-summer. Delayed implantation occurs after a fall mating. Incubation takes 72-80 days, and the eggs hatch in August and September. They absorb the egg yolk before hatching and that holds them for about ten days.
Painted turtles are most vulnerable in the nest and as tiny hatchlings. Garter snakes, crows, chipmunks, gray squirrels, ground hogs, skunks, fox and raccoons will dig up in the soft soil or sand to get to the eggs. Once hatched, weasels, muskrats, mink, raccoons, bass, bull frogs, snapping turtles and herons will make a quick meal of the turtles. As adults, birds of prey, raccoons and crows will kill and eat these turtles.
You’ll see painted turtles basking on logs and rocks with other turtles first thing in the morning. They need to warm from a night sleeping under water before they begin to eat. They repeat this two or three more times during the day. Bask to warm, have a meal, take a nap, bask again. It’s a turtle’s life, eh? They have a wide variety of foods, mostly aquatic plants and algae, but they also eat insects, dead and injured fish, and small crustaceans.
Most painted turtles hibernate in the mud at the bottom of the ponds and lakes, usually in water no deeper than seven feet. Occasionally they’ll hibernate in fields and woods.
As kids, we brought home small painted turtles to keep as pets and let larger ones go in the backyard or ponds. We know now that the turtle’s homing instinct will drive it to try to return to its home. They’ll cross water and land to get there, and according to research I saw referenced, close to half will eventually make it. I have a soft spot for turtles and will stop to let them cross the road. If you do the same, keep them going in the same direction so they don’t turn around and double back to the road.