Painted Turtle

Taxon, Status, and Ranks Habitat Photos
General Description State Status Comments
Identification Tips Inventory & Research Needs Key Features
Phenology Threats & Mgmt Concerns
Range References Distribution Map

Taxon, Status, and Rank

Species Chrysemys picta     (Schneider, 1783)
Family Emydidae
(Box and Water Turtles)
Status None
State Rank S5
Global Rank G5

General Description

A medium-sized aquatic turtle with a dark colored upper carapace (upper shell); bright red markings on the plastron (lower shell) and marginal carapace; and yellow lines on the head, legs and tail. Adults range in size from 6 to 25 cm (2 1/2 - 10 in.).

The carapace is olive, dark brown or black; it may have yellow and red borders on the seams and has prominent red bars or spots on the undersides of the marginals (edge scales). Except in old individuals, the carapace is relatively smooth. No dorsal keel exists except a weak one in hatchlings. The posterior marginals are not serrated. The plastron is stunningly red. A large, lobed, yellow and black blotch exists in the center of the plastron, with the lobes following the plastral seams. The skin is black to olive with yellow stripes on the head, neck, legs, and tail. With age, the color of the plastron fades and the carapace becomes pitted and worn. Males are smaller; have elongate front claws on the three middle digits (i.e., digits 2, 3, and 4) that are used for courtship; and have a long thick tail with the opening to the vent located posterior to the margin of the carapace when the tail is extended. Juveniles resemble the adults but with brighter coloration. See Photos Page.

Identification Tips

The Painted Turtle is easily distinguished from all other turtle species in Washington by the bright red or orange red markings on the plastron and undersides of the marginal scales of the carapace. These colorful markings are usually visible on basking turtles. See Key Features Page.


This species is active as soon as water temperatures warm and the sun’s rays create conditions suitable for basking, usually in late March or early April. Female turtles migrate from water bodies to terrestrial egg laying sites in late spring and early summer. Turtles in Skamania County lay eggs in late May and June. In eastern Washington, egg laying takes place in June –July. Incubation time is not known from Washington populations but the literature indicates 72 – 104 days from other areas in the Northwest. Turtles hatch in late summer or early fall and may migrate to breeding ponds or overwinter in the nest. Adults overwinter in bottom sediments or within the flooded banks of water bodies.


Painted Turtles have been documented in all Washington ecoregions but most occurrences are at the lower elevations of eastern Washington, the Columbia Gorge and the Puget Trough. The species was likely introduced to the Puget Sound region as the earliest records (Marysville – 1958, Bigelow Lake – 1960, and Ravenna Park – 1967) are relatively recent and associated with urban and residential areas. Today, the species is well-distributed throughout the Puget Sound region. Elsewhere in Washington, Painted Turtles are likely native. See Distribution Map.

For information on the complete range of this species, see NatureServe Explorer.

Habitat and Habits

This species is primarily aquatic, straying from water only to lay eggs, for dispersal and at times of drought. Aquatic habitats include lakes, ponds, wetlands, and slow flowing areas of rivers and creeks. They prefer habitats that have muddy sediments and lots of aquatic vegetation. Terrestrial habitats include shrub-steppe, grassland and forest. The wet, cool, mesic forests of western Washington are not suitable habitat. Painted Turtles are diurnal. They shelter under water at night and start the day by basking on rocks, logs and the shore. Basking also takes place throughout the day. They tend to be common where they occur and are easily spotted by searching basking sites. They are wary of people and will quickly slip into the water when approached. Often, individuals return to the surface swimming vertically with their heads protruding out of the water.

Research has shown that juvenile Painted Turtles, when taken by Largemouth Bass (Micropterus salmoides), will thrash and claw, often eliciting their release by the predator. This behavior is not exhibited by all turtle species but appears to give survival advantages to the Painted Turtle where predatory fish large enough to engulf juveniles, like Largemouth Bass, are present.

State Status Comments

This species appears to be common in Washington and no specific conservation actions seem to be needed at this time. Identifying where native populations actually occur would be useful.

Inventory and Research Needs

Understanding the actual distribution and status of native versus exotic populations of Painted Turtles in Washington is needed to determine whether any problems may exist. This issue can only be effectively addressed with genetic data.

Observations of turtles from areas not indicated on the map can be submitted to Lori Salzer at Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife at

Threats and Management Concerns

The major threats are to females killed by vehicles while moving to and from nesting sites and from predation on nests and nesting females. Well-traveled roads located between terrestrial nesting sites and aquatic active-season sites have the potential to fragment turtle habitat in a manner that could extirpate local populations. No studies in Washington State have addressed this issue.

Sheen and Gibbs (2004) found that turtle populations were male dominated in high road density areas (73% for painted turtles and 95% for snapping turtles) but were less so in low road density areas (54% for painted turtles and 74% for snapping turtles). This suggests that females are being killed by vehicles at higher rates than males, most likely during nesting migrations. This may be a significant threat to turtle populations near roads because these populations will be skewed towards males and will have lower recruitment. Because of the long lifespan of turtles, it may take decades before it becomes apparent that a population is in decline.

Current Research

Fred Janzen, Ricky Spencer, and Gary Paukstis are studying predation rates and other aspects of Painted Turtle reproduction in the Columbia River Gorge of Skamania County.


Britson and Gutzke (1993), Ernst and Barbour (1989), Lindeman (1988), Nussbaum et al. (1983), Sheen and Gibbs (2004), Stebbins 2003

Personal communications: F. Janzen

Hallock, L.A. and McAllister, K.R. 2005. Painted Turtle. Washington Herp Atlas.

Last updated: February 2005

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