The painted turtle (Chrysemys picta) is not your average aquatic turtle. This species (including its various subspecies) has the largest range of any north American turtle, and can found in suitable habitats from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast of North America. It is also colorful, outgoing, moderately-sized, and very undemanding. Let’s take a closer look at painted turtles and see whether they are the right pet turtle for you.
Tank setup for painted turtles generally follows the basic design already described. Like the red-eared slider, with which it is often confused, painted turtles are the quintessential basking-type turtle that inhabits ponds, lakes and lazy rivers, around which they spend a great deal of time soaking up the sun. If you’ve ever seen them in the wild, you will understand just how important these basking sites are. Juveniles and adults will often be piled up on one another in the choicest sunning spots, and long tanning lines of individuals will form on sufficiently thick tree branches. Consequently, you will need a good heat lamp or ceramic heater, and it is also a good idea to use a UV-B emitting bulb as well.
In addition to providing a good basking spot, these turtles will enjoy a large and deep swimming area. These are not large turtles, but, depending on the subspecies, males will generally reach at least 4 inches at maturity, with females getting to around 7 inches in total carapace length. Applying the general rule of thumb of 10 gallons to each inch of carapace length is a good starting point when estimating tank size.
Like just about all basking turtles, the painted turtle likes to shred its food and will generally make a mess of just about anything it eats. This, coupled with their significant size at maturity, poses a real challenge in terms of water quality. Consequently, we again stress that you consider using a quality canister filter for their tanks, in addition to regular (preferably weekly) 50% water changes. Dechlorinated tap water is fine for painted turtles and they are relatively unaffected by things like pH and water hardness.
Typical household temperatures are fine, and generally obviate the need for heating the water so long as a basking temperature under the light of close to 100F is reached. However, in winter things can get more complicated. As discussed below, the various subspecies come from different climatic zones. For example, the eastern painted turtle (C. p. picta), as it is used to hibernating during the winter months, will have a strong instinct to prepare for a long cold winter, and if water temperatures start to dip below 70F in your tank, it could cause this species to stop feeding. This drive is so hard-wired that some turtles may stop feeding as autumn approaches, even if warm water temperatures are maintained.
Painted turtles will happily accept most turtle food. Like other basking species, they tend to start life as carnivores, eating insects, small fish, tadpoles, etc., and then move towards a more vegetable-based, omnivorous diet. Make sure to dust prepared foods with a high quality supplement. I have always used Rep-Cal for providing crucial vitamin D and calcium, and would not recommend any other. A failure to supplement foods with these vitamins is just asking for trouble, and is particularly damaging to young, growing turtles that are likely to manifest shell deformities as they mature.
Young turtles are very difficult to sex, but as they grow males will show several differences. Males will tend to have larger front claws, a longer, thicker tail, and a more concave plastron (underside of shell) compared to the flat plastron of the female. Of course, the female will normally get significantly larger than the male as well.
Like most basking turtles, the painted variety is very long lived. The eastern subspecies is reported to live between 20 to 40 years, and mature in about 10 years. This is likely a very conservative estimate of this species lifespan in the wild. In captivity, a well cared for turtle should easily live for more than 20 years.
Painted Turtle Subspecies
One neat thing about these animals is how they’ve begun to change since the last ice age. Currently, there are four recognized subspecies:
- Eastern Subspecies (C. p. picta): this subspecies is prevalent along most of the east coast, along a wide swath stretching from Novia Scotia to Georgia. It is typified by a dark green to black carapace, sometime with a faint midline stripe and red edging along the marginal scutes. This is a moderately-sized turtle, with an average mature carapace length of 5-7 inches for the male, and 6-7 inches for the female.
- Midland Subspecies (C. p. marginata): the midland painted turtle occurs in a wide inland area that starts in the north from southern Quebec and Ontario, and goes westward as far as Michigan, Indiana and southern Illinois. Its southernmost extent falls somewhere in Tennessee. This subspecies mixes with eastern form along the northeastern boundary of its range, and this “integrade” is the dominant from throughout much of Pennsylvania. A nondescript form of painted turtle. Adults are between 4 and 10 inches in total length.
- Western Subspecies (C. p. bellii): this subspecies is reportedly the largest, reaching 10 inches in total length, and covers the most area of the North American continent. Its easternmost extent starts in western Illinois and a small extension of its range continues as far west as the northern Oregon coast and southern border of Washington state. It occurs as far south as northern Oklahoma and as far north as Lake Manitoba. The most notable feature of this subspecies is a brightly colored, reddish plastron.
- Southern Subspecies (C. p. dorsalis): not only is this the smallest subspecies, with an average carapace length of 4-6 inches, but it has the most limited range as well. It is generally found in western Tennessee, Arkansas, Alabama, and Lousiana. The southern painted turtle can usually be recognized by its relatively vivid, red midline dorsal stripe.
Painted Turtles as Pets – The Verdict
These are generally colorful and easy to please aquatic turtles that should thrive in a basic turtle tank setup provided they are given enough room. While all of the subspecies can be maintained in captivity, some of the subspecies adapted to the northern latitudes may have a tendency to go off feed in the winter, even if adequate water temperatures are maintained year-round. For this reason, the southern painted variety may be a more ideal choice as a pet, since it hails from a much warmer clime. In addition, as the smallest of the subspecies, it can be housed in slightly smaller enclosures.