Shadow

Western painted turtle, native to North America

With bright yellow stripes on its head, neck, legs and tail, the Western Painted Turtle looks like a living canvas. An olive to black carapace or shell cover features a smooth, and oval surface. The underside shell, or the plaston, includes yellow or red borders, and red bars or crescents.

Western painted turtle, native to North America

As the largest of the painted turtles, adult males reach a length of 10 to 17 cm (4 to 7 inches); adult females reach 20 to 25.4 cm (8 to 10 inches). The moderate-sized head has a projecting snout. This sub-species has webbed hind feet and slender claws on its front feet.

Habitat

As an aquatic species, the Western Painted Turtle lives in wetlands such as shallow waters of ponds, lakes and slow-moving bodies of water in low elevation forests and grasslands. This species can thrive in soft, muddy substrates with aquatic plant life. They bask on rocks, logs and floating vegetation to raise their body temperature to aid in foraging and breeding. Over winter, adults lie dormant in ponds and lakes.

Breeding

During courtship, the male follows the female. The male’s foreclaws vibrate on the sides of the female’s head. The female responds by vibrating her claws near her mate’s forelimbs. Mating occurs in shallow water. During dawn or dusk, nesting may take place in loose, well-drained soils up to 150 metres (164 yards) from the breeding site. The female deposits up approximately 23 eggs in a 10 cm (4 in.) hole, then covers them for a 76-day incubation.

Nest temperature determines the hatchling’s sex: temperatures above 29C produce females; temperatures below 27C produce males; and a temperature of 28C produces both males and females.

Life Cycle

Although mortality of hatchlings is high, surviving juveniles and adults can reach a life span of over 50 years. Hatchlings hatch in the fall, spend their first winter in the nest, then emerge in spring. Predators such as raccoons, coyotes, black bears, squirrels, dogs, cats, exotic turtle species, as well as diseases and parasites, threaten eggs and juveniles. Where nesting occurs near roads, hatchlings the size of a Canadian dollar coin may try to reach the nearest pond and risk being killed by vehicles.
Predators of small turtles while in the water include otters, raccoon, great blue herons, bullfrogs and large fish. Larger juveniles and adults may fall prey to coyotes, raccoons, badgers, weasels.

Diet

Western painted turtle

The western painted turtle as juveniles feed on tadpoles, aquatic insects, crayfish and snails. Large turtles feed on frogs, fish and scavenge. As Western Painted Turtles mature, they feed on wetland plant life, and live and dead animals.

Threats to Habitat

The endangered Western Painted Turtle faces threats related to its habitat:

Increased temperatures may result in habitat loss. Example: drier prairies
Water pollution
Drainage of wetlands
Roads that result in loss in habitat and allow predators to reach turtle nests

Advocacy

In southern Vancouver Island in British Columbia, certain roads feature bright orange warning signs to alert drivers approaching a turtle migration area. Signs feature an image of a turtle, and text stating, “Slow” and “Crossing Season.”

Researchers for the Habitat Acquisition Trust, based in Victoria, B.C., request that anyone witnessing a Western Painted Turtle to photograph and gather information in an effort to protect nesting habitat and maintain migration corridors.

Where Do Turtles Go in Winter

In spring and summer, it is common to see a variety of turtles in and around ponds, streams, marshes and freshwater rivers in woodland and wetland New England habitats. Painted turtles like to congregate on logs or rocks in ponds during morning or afternoon, between periods of foraging. The more shy spotted turtle prefers marshy pastures or streams in woodland areas, basking on logs or clumps of grass.

A female snapping turtle may be seen crossing a backyard or road to find a dry area away from water to lay her eggs. The box turtle and wood turtle, as more land-loving species, prefer bogs or marshy meadows, and like to bask in the morning. The musk turtle, also called the “stinkpot,” is nocturnal like the snapping turtle, so it stays buried in the mud all day, but may be spotted floating just beneath the water’s surface if it decides to bask. The diamondback terrapin is one of two turtle species that prefer brackish water, and it loves to bask in the daytime and sleep in the mud at night.

Turtles Unable to Regulate Body Temperature

Western painted turtle North America

While each species might prefer different ways or times of day to bask and be active, what they have in common is that these turtles, like all reptiles, are considered “cold-blooded”—that is, they are unable to regulate their body temperature and must use their environment to warm up and cool down.

In the warmer months, the sun heats their bodies, speeding up their metabolism, enabling them to be more active. When they are in danger of overheating, they can retreat into the water, mud, or beneath a pile of leaves to cool down. The land-loving box turtles, for instance, take shelter from heat under logs, decaying vegetation, or in soft mud. Each species has its own threshold for tolerance of the heat. The diamondback terrapin, for example, is quite tolerant of high temperatures and drying out while basking on mud flats, whereas the stinkpot will seldom emerge from the water, spending most of its time on the muddy bottom..

Hibernation Keeps Turtles Alive

But when winter comes to New England, how does a turtle keep warm when the sun isn’t as strong, the water chills, and ice forms? Where do the turtles go? Like the way of many animals preparing for winter, the turtle eats a lot to shore up its energy reserves. Depending on the species type and age, the turtle may be an omnivore or herbivore, but most of these northeastern turtle species feed like scavengers on a variety of algae, aquatic plants (living or dead), crayfish, worms, snails, insects tadpoles and more.

Anywhere from late September to November, when the temperature drops, the turtle will find a muddy spot in the bottom of a pond or stream, or in the case of the terrestrial box turtle, dig a hole in the ground somewhere, to burrow for hibernation. A snapping turtle or stinkpot might retreat into a muskrat lodge, or dig under a log, burying itself as much as a foot deep. A painted turtle might dig up to 18 inches into the muddy bottom of a pond to stay for the winter.

During hibernation, the turtle’s system slows way down and it no longer uses its lungs for respiration. The turtle absorbs any oxygen it needs from the water around it, through the lining of its mouth or throat. The chemical composition of the turtle’s blood changes so it doesn’t freeze up when the metabolism is so slow.

In some instances, a turtle—or group of turtles—will use the same hibernating spot from winter to winter. Some, like painted turtles, might emerge from hibernation if there is a warm spell, but if a turtle emerges from hibernation too soon, and there is a sudden dip in temperature, it might not survive. Some turtles have been observed crawling under the ice in mid- to late winter. Hibernation is generally over sometime in March or April. After hibernation, turtles will reproduce and nest during late spring and early summer.

The landmark 1972 book Turtles of the United States by notable herpetologists Carl H. Ernst and Roger W. Barbour was used in part to research this article. This comprehensive guide citing scientific observations on individual species’ population, habitat, movement, reproduction and more, has become a standard reference for scholars, and has since been updated to include new information and contributions by Jeffrey E. Lovich.

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