Small Wonders, Critter Stories: Painted Turtle

New York is host to several varieties of turtle, but perhaps the most commonly seen is the painted turtle – Chrysemys picta. They can be seen sunning on logs or stream banks on warm sunny days – but you must be very quiet to sneak up on them. If they see or hear you coming, they will slip back into the water leaving you staring at the ripples. They love slow moving streams, ponds, and wetlands.

Although you may see several turtles sunning together, they are usually solitary creatures by habit unless it is the mating season.

They are widespread throughout the US, up into Canada, down to New Mexico and extend from coast to coast. The variety of painted turtle we see in New York is the eastern subspecies.

The diet of the turtle is omnivorous, meaning it will eat plant materials, small crustaceans, fish, and insects.

FUN FACT: They can tolerate long periods of freezing weather as they have a substance in their blood that is akin to anti-freeze that prevents the tissues from freezing. They dig down into the bottom mud to overwinter, where they can survive for long periods with oxygenation.

The adults are between 5-10 inches long, with the female being larger than the male. They grow quite slowly, with males reaching maturity in 3-5 years and females maturing in 6-10 years. The female will be the larger of the sexes when mature.

The top shell (carapace) is a dark olive green/brown color and can have flecks of red and/or yellow, with the bottom shell (plastron) being plain yellow or perhaps slightly spotted yellow.

Mating season is late spring to early fall, and if you are lucky enough to see them courting, you may see the male caressing the face of his intended partner.

After mating, the female will lay 4-15 eggs in a soft, sandy location that has good sun exposure to ensure hatching. The turtle buries her eggs and leaves the area looking undisturbed so as to avoid detection by predators. 

FUN FACT: The eventual sex of the turtle egg will be determined by the hatching temperature. Lower temperatures will produce males and higher temperatures will produce female turtles. 

When the baby turtles eventually hatch, they will dig out of the nest and will be fully independent from the start. Many do not make the journey back to the water as there are plenty of predators that will take them, including herons.

FACT: In indigenous cultures, the turtle holds a very sacred space. The shell of the turtle has 13 squares and 28 squares around the outside, representing the thirteen moons and 28 days of the lunar calendar.

Turtles are ancient creatures, fossils of turtles have been found from 15 million years ago, so they have been around for a while.

CAUTION: If you handle turtles of any kind, be aware that they naturally harbor salmonella bacteria – necessary for the turtle, but it can make humans very sick. Always wash your hands after handling.

While these delightful creatures are not endangered, they do suffer from habitat destruction. It is vital that we keep our wetlands alive for them.

Visit the Saunders Finger Lakes Museum’s programs page to sign up for a guided paddle, where participants will be taken through the wetlands where these lovely shelled creatures live and you just might spot one! Or visit the Townsend Grady Wildlife Preserve on your own time to explore and see what you could find.

For more in-depth painted turtle information, check out these resources:

Painted Turtle Facts

Painted Turtle Laying Eggs

Native American Animals: The Turtle Symbolizes Grandmother Earth

More From the Finger lakes Museum

Small Wonders, Critter Stories: Millipedes

Small Wonders, Critter Stories: Millipedes

What is the difference between a centipede and a millipede, you may ask, and you would be forgiven for saying the number of legs! In actuality, they are both members of the Arthropod family and are members of the sub-group myriapods (many feet).  About those legs –...

Small Wonders, Critter Stories: Chipmunk

Small Wonders, Critter Stories: Chipmunk

Meet our newest guest blogger, Sue Norris.  A retired RN originally from the UK, she has lived in the Finger Lakes Region since 1993 and loves the area for its natural beauty, diversity of life and tranquility. Working to be self-sufficient, she grows many of her own...

Flint Creek Otters

Flint Creek Otters

Our wonderful volunteers, Sue Norris & Helen Heizyk had their Flint Creek Otters story & photos featured in the recent March / April Life in the Finger Lakes (LIFL) magazine edition. Read their story to learn more about their otter encounters, their importance...