Western Painted Turtle
Western Painted Turtle
The Western Painted Turtle is the only native pond turtle left in British Columbia. They have a smooth, rounded keeled carapace and large heads, legs, and tails relative to their shells.
Listen to the Indigenous words for “turtle” here!
The Western Painted Turtle may be confused with the other two species of pond turtle in British Columbia, the Red-eared Slider and the Northwestern Pond Turtle. Western Painted Turtles can often be seen basking with Red-eared Sliders where they have been introduced, but can be easily distinguished as Sliders have distinct red ‘ears’ or stripes on the sides of their head that are visible from a distance. Western Painted Turtles are much more brightly coloured than the Northwestern Pond Turtle with yellow stripes on the neck and legs.
Credit: Leigh Anne Isaac
Western Painted Turtle
Credit: Chris Yarzab
Credit: Dave Feliz
Northwestern Pond Turtle
The Western Painted Turtle has a broad distribution in North America and can be found from coast to coast. In British Columbia, Western Painted Turtles are mostly found in the southern portion of the province in the Okanagan Valley, the Kootenay region, and sporadically on the lower mainland and Vancouver Island. It is thought that coastal populations of Western Painted Turtles were established after pet turtles were abandoned by their owners. There are 4 subspecies of Painted Turtle in North America, only one of which occurs in British Columbia: Chrysemys picta belli. In British Columbia, two distinct populations of this subspecies are recognized, the Pacific Coast population and the Intermountain – Rocky Mountain population.
In Canada, Western Painted Turtles are dormant in the winter and active from around April to late September or October. They overwinter at the bottom of ponds or under submerged undercut banks. During the active season Western Painted Turtles inhabit shallow aquatic habitats with slow-moving water, soft bottoms, abundant vegetation, and plenty of basking sites in close proximity to the safety of the water. They can be found in a variety of habitat types with these features, including swamps, marshes, permanent and temporary ponds, creeks, rivers, and lakes. In some areas, particularly where temporary ponds are common, Western Painted Turtles will use multiple wetlands over the course of the year and may have home ranges up to several square kilometers. Females prefer to nest in sandy or gravelly soils in open-canopy habitats that allow for high sun exposure such as meadows, shorelines, fields, and road shoulders, usually within 100-200 m of a water body.
Courtship among Western Painted Turtles is very short, usually lasting less than 15 minutes. Usually, several males will swim after a single mature female. The first male to reach her swims in front, facing her with his front legs stretched out, occasionally stroking her head with his long claws. The female is then enticed to follow the male, and they sink to the bottom of the pond to mate. Sometimes, a female will not wait for males to initiate mating but rather pursue whichever male she likes. Nesting begins in late June and females lay a single clutch of 6 – 18 rounded eggs about the size of a two dollar coin. Females build their nests at night and are extremely vigilant for predators, scanning the shore multiple times before moving onto land. Hatching occurs in late summer, and most young do not leave the nest before overwintering. Hatchlings are highly freeze-tolerant and can survive temperatures as low as -10°C in the nests. Unfortunately, survival of young is quite low due to extreme freezing temperatures and predation of eggs and hatchlings. However, those that survive and make it to their aquatic habitats the following spring have much higher survival rates. Like many other turtle species, sex determination of the young is temperature dependent with temperatures above 29 °C producing mostly females, and temperatures below 29 °C producing mostly males. In Canada, female Western Painted Turtles reach sexual maturity at 12-15 years old, and males between 7-10 years old. Western Painted Turtles are capable of living over 50 years in the wild, and potentially much longer.
Western Painted Turtles are omnivores that forage opportunistically, eating everything from insects, snails, earthworms, frogs, tadpoles (pictured left), algae, aquatic plants, and carrion. Juvenile Western Painted Turtles are much more carnivorous than adults, trending towards herbivory as they age, depending on the food sources available to them. In northern climates, Western Painted Turtles eat more protein than individuals further south, helping them to grow more quickly, and providing energy to survive the cold winters.
Extensive loss of wetland habitat in British Columbia has caused significant declines of the Pacific Coast population, and continued habitat loss continues to threaten the Intermountain – Rocky Mountain population, and the other subspecies across the Canadian range. Western Painted Turtles are particularly susceptible to road mortality during nesting periods as females and hatchlings make their overland movements. As Western Painted Turtles are long-lived and have low reproductive output, even low rates of road mortality can result in population decline. Where nest predators such as raccoons and skunks are very abundant, nest predation can be a serious threat.
If you see a Western Painted Turtle, the best thing to do is to keep your distance. Be aware when in turtle habitat so that you don’t trample nest sites. Never take wild turtles home as pets; turtles often starve to death in captivity.
Did You Know?
The Western Painted Turtle is the most northerly occurring turtle species in North America, and they can survive under water in ponds that are covered with over 50 cm of ice.
Western Painted Turtles always swallow their food under water, as it is difficult for them to swallow dry food.