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Choosing a Painted Turtle

By: R.D. and Patti Bartlett

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The painted turtle is well suited for the garden. The name refers to the brilliant red markings that look as if they've been painted on around the perimeter of the shell. The painted turtle lives in ponds and slow rivers throughout the United States.

Painted turtles can and will bite. The mandibles are sharp and the jaws are powerful but even an adult is too small to do much damage. However, care should be used when handling and feeding any turtle.

Appearance

Both the hatchlings and the adults of this species are among the world's most beautiful turtles. Rather than dulling with age as most turtles do, this chelonian either remains the same in brilliance and contrast, or actually gets brighter.

The eastern painted turtle has a pair of large bright yellow spots on each side of the head. The upper shell is olive-black to black. The head and neck markings are yellow, and the markings on the edges and on the limbs are bright red. The lower shell is yellow.

Behavior

Eastern painted turtles are very cold-tolerant. If you should peer through clear ice into the water below, you'll see them swimming slowly along. During the summer months these turtles haul out on smooth banks, smooth emergent rocks, fallen trees overhanging the water, or anywhere else that the sun is beating down. At optimum body-temperatures (often many degrees above the temperature of the waters in which they swim), bodily processes – circulation, feeding and digestion, reproductive urges, and escape mechanisms – are at their peak.

Like other basking turtles, when contented, the painted turtle extends his neck to the fullest, sticks his back feet straight backwards and separates the toes to expose as much of the webbing as possible. When suitably warm, the turtle drops into the water to cool and forage. This alternating procedure may take place several times daily.

Feeding

Painted turtles feed while submerged. Food is found by sight, scent, and, perhaps, touch. They eat earthworms, crickets, freshly killed minnows, tadpoles, pond plants such as anacharis and cabomba, and leaves of romaine lettuce, escarole and collards. They also enjoy pelleted trout chow, catfish chow, and koi pellets. Reptomin and scientifically formulated turtle chows are fine. Vegetation should always be available. Uneaten animal protein-based dietary items can quickly sour your water, so feed these prudently.

Fast growing baby turtles and ovulating females need more calcium than adult males or non-ovulating adult females. Supplements should be given once or twice weekly to baby turtles and females in the spring and early summer; otherwise provide the supplements biweekly.

Housing

These moderately sized turtles need clean water, space to swim, an area where they can dry and bask, suitable temperatures (both of water and basking area), suitable light and a healthy diet.

Up to a half-dozen hatchlings can be housed temporarily in a 10 or 15 gallon aquarium. The same number of 4-inch long specimens will require nothing less than a 30, and preferably a 40-gallon aquarium, and when fully grown will need a 75-gallon or larger tank.

Besides being filtered, the water in your turtle tank will require periodic changing. If you accomplish this by means of a siphon tube, do not start the siphon by sucking on it. Salmonella bacteria can be lurking. The larger your turtles are and the more you have, the more often the water will require changing. This holds true in a garden pond as well as in an indoor aquarium. A self-priming pond pump is an ideal way to remove the water from either indoor or outdoor units.

Because of their tolerance for both hot and cold temperatures, these are ideal garden pond turtles for most of the year. The best water temperature for these turtles is between 60 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit, but at the cooler temperatures a warmed basking area is imperative. In outside enclosures, hibernation usually occurs during the short, cold, days of winter, when water temperatures dip into the 50s or below.

Basking haulouts should be smooth (so they don't abrade the plastron of the turtles) and provide enough surface for the turtles to balance easily, move a little, and dry completely. Textured plastic and other haulouts are commercially available. These are more easily sterilized than driftwood. In outside ponds a bark covered limb (do not use cedar or other aromatic wood) may be used and replaced when necessary.

The daytime temperature in the indoor tank varies from 95 to 102 degrees Fahrenheit. This is provided by UV-B heat bulbs used during the hours of daylight.

Medical Issues

  • Puffy eyelids or closed eyes often are the result of insufficient Vitamin A

  • Soft shell (MBD) may be caused by an inability to metabolize calcium or insufficient dietary calcium

  • Ulcerative shell disease (shell rot) is usually caused by poor water quality

  • Respiratory ailments can be caused by rapidly fluctuating or incorrect temperatures

  • Dystocia (egg-binding)

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