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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

June 1996

Sun seekers

Painted turtles soak up the rays on bright summer days.

Anita Carpenter

The days are warm, the air is calm: Turtle weather is upon us. Emerging from their watery world, painted turtles slowly climb onto exposed logs and rocks to indulge in a favorite pastime – stretching out. Leathery heads and legs are fully extended, right down to the claw tips on widespread toes. Turtles pass lazy summer days basking in the warm sunshine.

Of the 11 turtle species found in Wisconsin, the painted turtles, Chrysemys picta, are the most numerous. These small aquatic turtles prefer shallow water with lush vegetation. Ponds, lake edges, marshes, backwater sloughs, ditches, and slow-moving streams are favorite haunts.

Although only one species of painted turtle populates the continental United States, four distinct subspecies occur and two of them live in Wisconsin. The western painted turtle, Chrysemys picta belli, inhabits the western half of the state. It grows to seven inches in length. The six-inch midland painted turtle, C. p. marginata, lives primarily in southeastern Wisconsin. The southern and eastern subspecies are not found here.

Painted turtles are easy to recognize. Long yellow stripes run the length of the neck, mark the edges of each leg and pattern the dark green head. The smooth oval carapace, or upper shell, ranges in color from dark green to black. Only painted turtles have red markings highlighting the outer margins of the carapace.

Patterns on the lower shell, or plastron, can help you distinguish the subspecies: The midland painted turtle has a dark gray oblong area in the middle of its yellow plastron; the western painted turtle has an irregular branched pattern covering most of its plastron. To confuse matters, plastral markings vary and blend together where ranges of the two subspecies overlap.

When cold weather returns, painted turtles hibernate in the soft mud of their ponds. After iceout, courtship begins when amorous males slowly swim in pursuit of females. When a female is ready, she allows a suitor to overtake and face her. He uses the back of his foreclaws to stroke her head and neck. She reciprocates by stroking his outstretched forelimbs. If all goes well, she sinks to the pond bottom, he follows, and mating occurs.

A female leaves her pond to lay eggs in late May, traveling up to a quarter-mile to find suitable nest sites in loose soil exposed to the sun. She'll excavate a flask-shaped cavity, then deposit four to 20 eggs, usually eight, in the nest. She covers the nest and returns to her pond. The white leathery eggs harden within a day. Warmth from the sun-heated soil incubates the eggs, but survival is largely left to fate. Hungry skunks, raccoons, badgers and foxes raid many nests.

In those nests where eggs survive, silver-dollar-sized turtles emerge in September and crawl to the ponds. Eggs laid later in the year or in harder soils may not produce young until the following spring. This strategy increases the chance that some of the hatchlings will survive predation on land and freezeout in the pond. How the youngsters survive sub-freezing winter temperatures in the nest just a few inches below the surface is still a mystery.

If painted turtles survive their first year, they have a good chance of living a long life. Males mature in five years; the slightly larger females, in six to seven years. With any luck, painted turtles may have 40 summers to stretch out on a favorite log and bask in the summer heat.

Anita Carpenter writes from Oskhosh, Wis.