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Ministry of Environment

Painted Turtle

Present range of the Painted Turtle in British Columbia
Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta)
Common Name:Painted Turtle
(Pacific Coast Pop.)
Painted Turtle (Intermountain -
Rocky Mountain Pop.)
Scientific Name:Chrysemys picta pop. 1
Chrysemys picta pop. 2
Status (B.C.):Red (Pop. 1)
Blue (Pop. 2)
Status (COSEWIC):Endangered (Pop. 1)
Special Concern (Pop. 2)

At a Glance

The Painted Turtle gets its name from the bold yellow stripes ‘painted’ on its head, neck, legs, and tail, and from the red, irregularly shaped markings that pattern the plastron (belly shell) and under-rim of the carapace (back shell). The carapace of these turtles is black to greenish black, and males may have dark worm-like markings. Females are larger than males with plastrons up to 25 centimetres long. Male plastrons measure between 9 and 17 cm long. Claws on the front feet also differ between sexes – males have long slender claws while females have short claws.

As the only native freshwater turtle in B.C., the Painted Turtle is unlikely to be confused with any other species. However, the Slider, with a bright red patch on each ‘ear,’ has unfortunately been released into wetlands by pet owners in many parts of B.C. The Western Pond Turtle, once resident in the Lower Mainland, no longer occurs in the province.

Home Sweet Home

Painted Turtles prefer the margins and shallows of lakes, ponds, ditches and sluggish streams with muddy bottoms and lots of aquatic plants. These areas provide important habitat for feeding, basking, shelter from predators, and hibernation. Painted Turtles also require nearby upland nesting areas (within 150 metres) that are usually south-facing, with no vegetation and dry, light soil free of roots and large stones.

This is the Life

During the breeding season, several male turtles will swim after a female. The first to catch up faces her and uses his long claws to gently stroke her head. The male follows the female as she sinks to the bottom of the pond, where mating occurs.

Egg laying takes place at night in early June to July. The female takes great care in selecting a good spot to lay her eggs. Digging a 12-cm deep hole with her powerful feet, the female deposits from 6 to 18 small, leathery white eggs (about 3 cm long), covers them with soil, and leaves. Only one clutch (batch of eggs) is laid per year. After incubating for 70 to 80 days, hatching occurs in late August or early September. Hatchlings (baby turtles) stay in the nest all winter, surviving temperatures as low as -50C. In May or June the dollar-sized hatchlings emerge and venture off to life in the pond.

Adult turtles can survive up to 30 years.

What’s on the Menu?

Frogs and insects and snails, oh my! In addition to these animals, Painted Turtles eat tadpoles, algae, freshwater insects, dead animal matter and a variety of aquatic plants. Young turtles are quite carnivorous, and may become more herbivorous as they mature. In turn, other animals prey on turtles, turtle eggs and hatchlings. Skunks, Coyotes, Raccoons and even ground squirrels dig up nests to eat the eggs, and hatchlings are preyed upon as they journey from nest to pond, or after arriving there.

Where and When

The most widely distributed of the 49 turtle species in North America, the Painted Turtle is found in the southern parts of most Canadian provinces, and as far south as Georgia in the United States. In B.C., Painted Turtles are found in the valleys and lowlands of the southern interior as far north as the Cariboo, as well as in the Lower Mainland, on Vancouver Island and on some Gulf Islands. They are found from sea level to above 1000 m.

During winter, adult turtles go to the muddy bottoms of ice-covered ponds and hibernate for five or six months, in shallow water where oxygen levels are higher, absorbing oxygen through their skin. In spring, Painted Turtles begin foraging for aquatic food and can stay underwater for 20 minutes before surfacing for air! Most summer feeding takes place in the morning on sunny days, after emerging from overnight sites in the weeds along the pond edge. In the afternoon, Painted Turtles can be seen basking in the sun on logs and rocks, often stacked one on top of the other competing for the warmth of the sun.

How Are They Doing?

Although abundant in many parts of the United States, the Painted Turtle is at the northern limit of its range within B.C. With little suitable habitat available for this specialised animal, the B.C. population of Painted Turtle is relatively small (likely only a few thousand). The habitat this species needs is also that favoured by humans. Many wetlands have been drained or altered to meet human needs, and the building of roads adjacent to wetlands increases the threat of traffic mortality. Nesting areas can be tough to spot and are vulnerable to damage by human activities, such as soil compacting or shoreline development for housing, man-made beaches, boat launches and roads.

The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) has evaluated Painted Turtles in B.C. Populations in southwestern B.C. have been designated as Endangered and those in the rest of the province as Special Concern. Provincially, Painted Turtles in southwestern B.C. are on the Red List, and those in the interior are on the Blue List.

How We’re Helping

Some Painted Turtle habitat in B.C. is well known, and is protected in parks and wildlife sanctuaries. Wetlands and riparian zones may also receive some degree of protection on public land. However, most suitable habitat is found on private land, which makes up most of the valley bottom area in southern British Columbia.

The Painted Turtle is protected under British Columbia’s Wildlife Act.

How You Can Help

Habitat protection is the most important priority for keeping Painted Turtles in B.C. To help this turtle, we need to know the locations of key habitats if we are to protect them. You can help out by volunteering with Frogwatch and participating in surveys to learn more about the distribution of this turtle in B.C. Find out how you can help protect wetlands through programs such as Naturescape, BC Wetlandkeepers and Wild BC. It may be possible to help restore degraded Painted Turtle habitat, create new nesting habitat or provide basking logs.

Painted Turtles are shy creatures. If you find Painted Turtles in the wild, take care not to disturb them, especially during the nesting season. Observe basking sites from a distance and don’t capture or take turtles home. Learn more about this colourful turtle, and share your knowledge with others!

No Kidding!

  • Some like it hot! Whether a turtle egg develops into a male or female hatchling (baby turtle) depends on the temperature of the nest as the eggs are developing throughout the summer. Warmer nests will produce female hatchlings while cooler nests will produce male hatchlings.
  • If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it! Turtles are an ancient group of animals. Fossil records show that turtles have been around for over 200 million years and yet their body plan has stayed essentially the same! They have seen the dinosaurs come and go.
  • Because turtles are tucked inside a hard shell, breathing must be done in a special way. Turtles use the muscles in their abdomen (stomach muscles) to inflate and deflate their lungs. Some of these muscles are also connected to the turtle’s legs, so you can see them moving a little as the turtle breathes!
  • Turtle shells act like a big eardrum, helping turtles to hear sounds by picking up low-frequency sound vibrations and directing them to the turtle’s ‘middle ear.’ Turtles can only hear low-frequency sound vibrations, such as the beating of a drum. That’s why turtles often appear deaf to human voices, which are high frequency.

Photo © Wally Edwards. No reproduction or distribution without permission.