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The Painted Turtle – Notes on Captive Care and Natural History

This article is one of a series in which I plan to provide a brief introduction to both popular and rarely-kept amphibians, reptiles and invertebrates.  I’ll cover such topics as unique habits in the wild, common concerns in captive care, pet pros and cons, husbandry tips and so forth.  Detailed care articles will follow…until then, I would enjoy receiving your questions and comments.  Today we’ll take a look at the most widespread of all North American Chelonians, the Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta).

Range

The Painted Turtle is the only freshwater turtle to range clear across the length and breadth of the USA.  The combined range of the 4 subspecies (the Eastern, C. p. picta, Western, C. p. bellii, Midland, C. p. marginata, and Southern, C. p. dorsalis) extends from southern Canada to northern Mexico, and encompasses roughly ¾ of the United States.

Why keep Painted Turtles?

Were it not so familiar to folks here in the USA, this most brightly-colored of the world’s turtles would certainly receive more attention from hobbyists – friends in other countries certainly hold it in high esteem.  Unlike most turtles, the brilliant red, orange and yellow highlights do not fade with age – some of mine even appeared to intensify as time when on!

I consider the Painted Turtle a much better choice as a pet than the more popular Red Eared Slider.  The subspecies are varied in color, hybridize at the edges of their range (a 22 year old at the Bronx Zoo appears to be an Eastern/Midland mix) and are all quite hardy when given proper care.  They are far more cold tolerant than most Sliders (Eastern Painted Turtles have survived being frozen in a block of ice)… wild caught individuals under my care go off feed each winter but remain active (at room temperature) and lose little if any weight by spring.

Another point in their favor is size – most top out at 8 inches in length with the largest (female Western Painted Turtles) being 9.5 inches long.  However, although they are smaller than Sliders, they are just as active – hatchlings should be started in a 20 gallon aquarium, and a pair of adults will need a tank of at least 75 gallon capacity, or an outdoor pond.

Diet

Painted Turtles are easy to feed, and can be kept in peak condition with a diet comprised of Reptomin, Freeze Dried Shrimp, minnows, earthworms, insects and dandelion and other greens (please see the article below for notes on feeding vegetables).  Most other aquatic turtle foods can also be offered from time to time.

Basic Necessities

Painted Turtle
Other necessary husbandry tool are readily available – a strong filter (I favor the ZooMed Canister), basking platform, UVB source and an incandescent basking light that warms the platform area to 90 F or so.

 

Further Reading

Please see the following articles for more info on Painted Turtle Care and Natural History:

Aquatic Turtle Diets

Water Quality in Turtle Tanks

Painted Turtle Natural History

Painted Turtle image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Dustykid

 

30 comments

  1. avatar

    Frank, I have often heard stories of disease being passed on via live feeder fish. I have never personally experienced this with turtles I have kept but I am curious to know is zoonoses possible?

    • avatar

      Hello John, Frank Indiviglio here.

      Thanks for your interest in our blog.

      I’ve never seen any evidence of parasite transmission even when utilizing thousands of fishes weekly with a huge collection of native and exotic turtles, and where the turtles were routinely examined by veterinarians (Bronx Zoo). Where particularly rare animals are concerned, some zoos utilize a Methylene Blue pre-treatment, or a quick saline dip as is commonly done by tropical fish importers. Snails and crayfishes are more common intermediate hosts than fishes, but again I’ve not had problems.

      Good luck and please keep me posted.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  2. avatar

    I am familiar with the Methylene blue as a shipping agent at least I believe thats what it was when I was working in the tropical fish industry. Our ‘feeder fish’ usually showed up in it. By the way did you see the new Reptiles magazine with that rare turtle in it? I can even remember the name but it had a white head with red stripe. It was an awesome looking animal! I left my copy at work today otherwise I would tell you the name of it. Now the zoonoses is that because snails, crayfish, etc are bottom feeders and more likely to pick up disease from waste material they are feeding on?

    • avatar

      Hello John, Frank Indiviglio here.

      Thanks for your interest in our blog.

      I did not see the magazine but perhaps it was Callagur borneoensis? The males’ heads develop bright red stripes and the background color fades to white in the breeding season. In a closely related species, Batagur baska, the males’ heads turn jet black and the eyes develop a white ring. I was lucky enough to work with breeding groups of both species – a real high point!

      The life cycles of parasites utilizing dual hosts seem very specific – i.e. crayfish to heron, snail to turtle. Some are quite bizarre – ant to sheep, for example!

      Good luck and please keep me posted.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  3. avatar

    I believe it was the Callagur as the article mentioned the breeding colors. You worked with them?! Oh I am so jealous I just want to see one live it was such a beautiful animal. Here I was thinking Soft shells were the coolest then I saw that Callagur borneoensis and I was shocked.

    • avatar

      Hello John, Frank Indiviglio here.

      Thanks; interesting that you bring up softshells as I’ve always wanted to spend more time with them. Had a group of giant Chitra from India at one point, but never had hands on a really large specimen. A 94 lb Florida softshell was caught 6-8 years ago, but expired due to poor handling; I tried to get there to see it but missed out.

      The Callagur were in a 77,000 gallon exhibit at the Bronx Zoo, along with Batagur. The color change may help prevent hybridization in the wild, as the 2 species are similar and live in the same murky waters. We bred the Batugur numerous times, Callagur less often; Batagur are still there, if you ever have the chance to visit, let me know.

      Good luck and please keep me posted.

  4. avatar

    So I brought my magazine home today and the way its written I am confused. “The Painted Terrapin (Batagur [Callagur] borneoensis) So it seems they are classifying it together? Anyway, that’s a shame about the soft shell. I will definitely let you know if I am able to visit. I would like to speak with you offsite is it possible to email you directly through this site as well?

    • avatar

      Hello John, Frank Indiviglio here.

      Sorry, I should have mentioned the taxonomic change (out taxonomist friends have been going wild since the ready availability of genetic testing!); the Painted Terrapin is the turtle I was referring to. Formerly Callagur borneoensis, now Batagur borneoensis; the related turtle I mentioned (sometimes called the Giant Asian River Terrapin) is Batagur baska (one in our collection was 80 pounds or so in weight).

      You can email me at findiviglio@thatpetplace.com. Please continue to post here when you are able as well, as other are enjoying and learning from your comments.

      Good luck and please keep me posted.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  5. avatar

    Oh, OK that explains it. As far as posting here I will always be here asking questions and clarifying things for my own education as we can only grow with the more knowledge we gain from each other.

    • avatar

      Hello John, Frank Indiviglio here.

      Thanks, I look forward to hearing from you; glad the taxonomy info was useful,

      Good luck and please keep me posted.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  6. avatar

    Hi. I was told that I had a painted turtle that was a few months old. Its about 2 or 3 inches long. Can u tell me what I must do to make it eat. I have tried; turtle sticks, grapes, and pellets. I just got it Saturday and it has not eaten Anything. I don’t think its sick because sometimes Its very active. I have her in a small container with water and a ramp. I put her in the sun for a while.

    • avatar

      Hello Tara, Frank Indiviglio here.

      Thanks for your interest in our blog. They often take awhile to adjust; the container should be appx. 12 inches x 8 inches by 6-10 inches deep (about the size of a 10 gallon aquarium) – turtles often will not feed if crowded. Try floating some plastic plants as well – they are shy and feel more secure with cover (many animals eat small turtles).

      Please remember that glass and plastic filters out the sun’s beneficial UVB rays, so the turtle must get direct sunlight or be kept under a UVB bulb.

      Live blackworms (sold in pet stores as tropical fish food) are usually a big favorite, earthworms also. Try also freeze dried shrimp, and, once it is feeding well, add Reptomin. Te turtle will also need small whole fishes from time to time – guppies or minnows are ideal. Bits of shrimp from the supermarket are a good treat also.

      Good luck and please keep me posted.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  7. avatar

    Can I let my painted turle go free?? I’ve raised him since we found him 10 years ago – about the size of a dime – now he is about 6 inches and just seems to want to get out – i live in southern CT

    • avatar

      Hello Janet, Frank Indiviglio here.

      Thanks for your interest in our blog. I strongly advise against releasing the turtle – there are 4 species and numerous subspecies of painted turtles in the USA, and not all would do well in CT. Even if you did have the species native to your region, an abrupt switch from a captive to wild diet, along with water quality and other changes, would be harmful. Also, captive turtles often harbor micro-organisms that do them no harm but which can devastate wild populations – released captive Desert Tortoises in CA caused immense die-offs of wild tortoises some years ago.

      Please be in touch with New England Reptile Rescue; this is a fine organization and they should be able to find a good home for your turtle.

      Good luck and please keep me posted.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  8. avatar

    Thank you so much – I just want him/her to be happy!!!

    • avatar

      Hello Janet, Frank Indiviglio here.

      Thanks for the note; my pleasure.

      Good luck and Please let me know if you need anything further,

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  9. avatar

    We have a young painted turtle caught in August. He has done great but lately isnt eating at all, his appetite earlier had been ferocious. Does the season change have some issue? Not eating at all, but is still active.

    • avatar

      Hello Madison, Frank Indiviglio here.

      Thanks for your interest in our blog. Yes, seasonal change, moderated by an internal clock of sorts, is involved. Wild caught painted and other temperate zone turtles usually stop feeding in autumn, even if kept warm; interestingly, captive-hatched individuals of the same species usually feed year-round.

      You can keep the turtle at normal room temperature and continue to provide a warmer basking site and UVB light. It will remain active but likely not feed until March or so (try every so often, however, as this varies). Most reptiles somehow moderate their metabolisms so that, despite remaining active, they lose little if any weight during winter…you can read a bit more about this article on Reptile Appetites and Seasonal Changes.

      As long as your turtle is otherwise healthy, it should be fine.

      Good luck and please keep me posted.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  10. avatar

    Frank, we tried heating the water and within a week or so he regained his appetite! Torpedo is back. Thanks Madison

    • avatar

      Hello Madison, Frank Indiviglio here.

      Thanks for taking the time to write back….I’m very happy to hear the good news. When you have a moment, please let me know what temperature you are using – species and even individuals vary, and so it will be very useful for me to have your info on hand.

      Good luck and please keep me posted.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  11. avatar

    Frank, great article on the painted turtle

    • avatar

      Hello Daniel, Frank Indiviglio here.

      Thanks for your interest and the kind words.

      Please let me know if you need any further information.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  12. avatar

    Adopted an Eastern Painted since spring. Absolutely loves the luxurious pond I’ve created.Healthy appetite of earthworms+veggies. But now that winter is approaching I am a bit concerned (actually found that he is a SHE…laid 5…yes five eggs.)….how to care for her. She is about 7″.Loves people. I have a 55 gal tank which she will probably feel confined considering her current envionment. Any tips would be appreciated….fallen in love w her. By the way her name is Neptune. Neptune Cecil Jeremiah Sampson. Bet you are laughing at this moment….even my neighbor asked if he was registered! lol.

    • avatar

      Hello Michele, Frank Indiviglio here.

      Thanks for your interest; no need to explain your passion to me…I’ve worked with turtles all my life in zoos, and still keep several at home! A Musk Turtle in my collection just turned 42 yrs of age.

      The tank is your best option as hibernating outdoors is difficult for captives. A submersible turtle filter should be used to keep the water clear; please write in if you need specific suggestions as to models, etc. Feeding the turtle in a separate enclosure will help with water quality (please see this article). While on that subject – best to add small whole minnows or goldfish to the diet each week or so; also Freeze dried shrimp/ prawn (calcium source).

      No need to heat the water at normal room temps, but install a 40-60 wt incandescent bulb over a basking site. UVB may not be essential if the turtle will go back out in the spring, but is a good idea. The turtle may be too large for typical turtle basking platforms; wedging or siliconing a piece of cork bark in one corner of the tank may be best.

      Turtles kept outdoors in summer often refuse to feed for part or all of the winter indoors, even if kept warm, due to influence of circadian rhythms/internal clocks. This is not a problem for healthy individuals; they lose little weight and resume feeding in spring, sometimes earlier.

      Please let me know if you need any further information. Good luck, enjoy and please keep me posted.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  13. avatar

    what is there survival rate if u keep a wild turtle?

    • avatar

      Hi,

      There are a great many variables…experience, habitat set-up, UVB bulbs and filtration used, diet you can provide, species and age, etc. Please send along some details. Also, bear in mind that many turtles are protected and may not be collected or possessed. Best, Frank

  14. avatar

    I have a painted turtle for over 10 years and take her outside to bask in the sun and give her some change. Yesterday I took her out side and she hid on me and now i can’t find her. I put a huge bowl of her stinkiest food and her tank water inbeded in the ground with rocks around it for easy access. I keep searching for her. Is their anything else I should know to help aid me in finding her?

    • avatar

      Hello,

      Water is a big draw, so try to bury other sources in ground if possible; spraying area with a hose may rouse the animal and cause it to move also. Check in AM, after cool night, as they tend to seek sun then. Food may work also, although raccoons, cats etc tend to find it first if they are present. I hope all goes well, please keep me posted, frank

  15. avatar

    Hello,
    I caught a western painted turtle about tow weeks ago. He is very small we estimated maybe just a week old at most. I have a few questions. How can you tell what the sex is of a painted turtle when they are small? Is an eastern painted turtle a good companion for him? And do eastern and western painted turtles breed together?
    Thank you,
    Shawna

  16. avatar

    Hello, I am new to caring for a Painted Turtle, and came across your blog while doing research. I have a few questions that I hope someone could help me with.

    On Friday, my nephew caught a Eastern Painted Turtle (I believe is very young because his shell is maybe 2 inches wide) at a pond near a family members home. The owner of the pond was happy someone caught him, stating someone came to the pond a few months or so ago, n abandoned 4-5 baby turtles in the pond. Only issue is, there are other species of aquatic life in that pond that could possibly kill the babies. Said between his grandsons and my nephew, he believes all of the babies were caught and rescued. Well, my sister asked us to take this one and care for it since they have one at their home. Brought him home, and I went to a local pet store and bought a “starter kit” terrarium for aquatic/land turtles (10g tank, UV Light, a large “basking” log) and I also purchased 2 aquatic plants that I found were non toxic, and large pebble stones (did not get normal gravel since I read he could possibly swallow them and die). As fir food….I bought turtle pellets which he would not touch so my sister recommended earth worms and he loves those.
    My issue is this, I have not seen him go on the basking rock yet. The light is directly above the rock so it is nice n warm….he seems to just like to float in the water by the plant with his head above water. Is this normal? Maybe he is still getting used to his “home”?
    We also noticed he is missing his right front foot. It is obvious this was not a recent injury since its a completely smooth nub. I am wondering if this was a birth defect or if something bit him while in the pond. He swims perfectly well with it.
    If someone could help me out with some tips and advice on how to care for this little guy properly since this is my first time caring for such a small turtle I would greatly appreciate it! We already fell in love with him and would be heartbroken if something happened to him due to our mistake! Thank you! =D

About Frank Indiviglio

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Being born with a deep interest in animals might seem unfortunate for a native Bronxite , but my family encouraged my interest and the menagerie that sprung from it. Jobs with pet stores and importers had me caring for a fantastic assortment of reptiles and amphibians. After a detour as a lawyer, I was hired as a Bronx Zoo animal keeper and was soon caring for gharials, goliath frogs, king cobras and everything in-between. Research has taken me in pursuit of anacondas, Orinoco crocodiles and other animals in locales ranging from Venezuela’s llanos to Tortuguero’s beaches. Now, after 20+ years with the Bronx Zoo, I am a consultant for several zoos and museums. I have spent time in Japan, and often exchange ideas with zoologists there. I have written books on salamanders, geckos and other “herps”, discussed reptile-keeping on television and presented papers at conferences. A Master’s Degree in biology has led to teaching opportunities. My work puts me in contact with thousands of hobbyists keeping an array of pets. Without fail, I have learned much from them and hope, dear readers, that you will be generous in sharing your thoughts on this blog and web site. For a complete biography of my experience click here.

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