Creature Feature

Painted Turtles Enjoy the Sunshine  

By Wayne Bierbaum  

On Easter Sunday, my wife and I went to Ladew Topiary Gardens in Monkton. In open areas, the wind was cold but in protected areas it was pleasantly warm. We were early for most flowering plants, so we took a walk on the nature trail. At a far corner of the property is a tan-colored pond. There, protected from the wind, were several painted turtles comfortably sunning themselves. They did not drop into the water as I expected and seemed to dismiss my presence.   

Painted turtles are North America’s most common freshwater turtle. At least one of four subspecies is found from Canada to Alabama and from the East Coast to the West Coast. The subspecies have pretty mundane names: north, south, midland, and west.  

All have stripes of yellow and red on a dark neck which is how they earned the name “painted”. All have a dark carapace (the top of the shell) with red-streaked edges and the southern subspecies has a red stripe down the middle. All the subspecies except the western painted turtle have a yellow plastron (the bottom of the shell). The western subspecies have a lovely red and yellow geometric pattern on the plastron.  

These turtles continue to grow with age and can live to over 35 years old. There are reports of painted turtles living for over 50 years. The females reach sexual maturity after their sixth year and males after four years. Eggs are laid within 200 yards of their home waters. The females will lay several clutches of eight to 20 eggs each season. The eggs take around 80 days to hatch but they are constantly at risk of being dug up or becoming too wet or too dry.   

The turtles are omnivores, meaning they eat plants, insects, fish, and any other animal they can catch. In the winter, they bury into the bottom of their pond or lake and hibernate. They can live for months without breathing air. As a cold-blooded reptile, they warm up in the sun, and once warm, they slide into the water to forage for food. Turtles will repeat the sunning and then foraging several times a day.  

They are the most common turtle sold as a pet, but because they frequently carry invasive salmonella, they should not be handled without a thorough clean-up after. Since they live a long time, adopting one as a pet must be a long-term commitment.