Chrysemys picta (painted turtle)

Chrysemys picta

The painted turtle is found throughout the Midwest (except for a few small pockets of southern Missouri), where it is a familiar sight on logs that extend into ponds, lakes, and rivers. Basking painted turtles in urban areas become habituated to human sounds, but in more natural areas they can be hard to sneak up on, often plopping quickly, one by one, into the water when humans approach.

Chrysemys picta is a candidate for Most Studied Turtle; an astounding amount of research and experimentation has been directed at these animals. It's as though all the marine biology majors who started out with their sights set on Woods Hole or Monterey Bay (as most of them do) and later discovered they were actually destined for Brainerd Lake, Minnesota, or Lake Shelbyville, Illinois, took out their frustrations on painted turtles. We felt bad flipping a few turtles gently onto their backs to take pictures of their undershells for this webpage—but after reading about Chrysemys picta experimentation, we don't feel so bad: "Injection of estradiol into a turtle's eggs will cause all embryos to develop as females"; "[p]ainted turtles forcibly submerged for two days at 25°C exhibit total body lactate levels of up to 300 mg%"; "[w]hen placed in saltwater . . . "; "[p]ainted turtles will die if their blood pH falls by about one full unit"; "Williams . . . released 98 painted turtles at varying distances from their collection points, with 41 turtles returning"; "[f]orty-five turtles . . . displayed a marked tendency to orient homeward when displaced 100m; however, none returned from 1.6 km" (Ernst & Lovich 2009). Perhaps an enterprising psychology graduate student somewhere should study displaced aggression in frustrated marine biologists.


Chrysemys picta can be recognized by the red and yellow markings on its neck and legs, in combination with the dark, fairly smooth shell. Similar turtles either lack red markings (like the river cooter, Pseudemys concinna) or have more sculpted shells (the pond slider, Trachemis scripta).

Four subspecies of Chrysemys picta occur, and all of them might be encountered in at least some part of the Midwest. The most common Midwestern subspecies, Chrysemys picta marginata (the midland painted turtle), ranges throughout the Midwest, east of the Mississippi River. It can be recognized by its undershell, which features a vague and shadowy, shroud-of-Turin-ish marking. Chrysemys picta bellii, the western painted turtle, features a darker, larger, and much more distinct design on its undershell; its range extends from western North America into Missouri. Chrysemys picta picta, the eastern painted turtle, has an undershell that lacks markings, along with a fairly uniformly dark shell; its range includes parts of eastern Ohio and Kentucky. The last subspecies, Chrysemys picta dorsalis (the southern painted turtle), also has an unmarked undershell—but it features a distinct reddish to yellowish line running down the middle of the shell between the head and the tail; its range extends into Kentucky and southern Illinois.

Midwestern range of Chrysemys picta

midwestern range

Chrysemys picta
"No turtle here. Just . . . don't worry about it. Move along."


Chrysemys picta
Chrysemys picta marginata

Chrysemys picta
red and yellow markings


Chrysemys picta
basking in spring

Chrysemys picta
vague undershell markings on an old Chrysemys picta marginata . . .


Chrysemys picta
. . . and on a younger individual

References: Ballinger & Lynch 1983, Ernst & Lovich 2009.

Kuo, Michael & Melissa Kuo (October, 2017). Chrysemys picta (painted turtle). Retrieved from the midwestnaturalist.com website: www.midwestnaturalist.com/chrysemys_picta.html

All text and images © , midwestnaturalist.com.