If I’ve ever seen a prettier Painted Turtle I can’t recall. My wife and I were out for some early morning fishing on “our” lake when we noticed a turtle poking about in the vicinity of our bobbers. Pretty soon, my bobber went straight down and I set the hook in anticipation of our first edible sized perch of the day. Unfortunately, the creature at the other end of my line turned out to be a medium sized turtle. He was firmly hooked in the bony upper plate of his mouth and it took a long minute to pry the barbed tip out. We were both upset – he at being unceremoniously yanked out of his element and I at wasting a perfectly good worm. As I handled the creature, however, his intense coloration and perfect condition began to play pleasantly on my eyes and I slowly came to the realization this was the perfect example of his kind.
It is easy to take common things for granted. I am as guilty as anyone of giving Painted Turtles the short shrift because they are so dog-gone common. Oh sure, I’ll still stop to look at them but will barely break stride to do so. They had become like deer and raccoons in my world view. But this one cleared the glaze from my eyes and re-introduced himself as living proof that every creature is worthy of consideration and re-consideration. Heck, if I were an East Indian or Australian, this would be an incredibly new sight. Blimey, as a Michi-merican I need to be reminded of that every now and then.
One look will tell you why this beast is called a Painted Turtle. Although there is a faint red racing stripe down the middle of the smooth carapace (top shell) and the individual scutes (plates) are lined with red (see here), the real paint job is evident along the bottom edge of the shell (see below). Here, bright scarlet shapes, set against a deep olive background, are accented with arcs of yellow dots. I’d say this pattern is vintage 70’s op art with a hint of Italian Miliflori. Yellow facial markings and heavy leg and tail stripes add some clown like pizazz to what otherwise would be a plain olive and yellow reptile.
Two features mark this swimming harlequin as a male. First of all, the long red-striped tail extends well beyond the margin of the plastron (bottom shell). The placement of the cloaca, the turd end of the that is evident as a swelling about a third of the way along the bottom side of the tail, is key (see here). Physically this allows the male to mate with the female by curling his tail down and around here upper shell. The most telling marks of masculinity on this Painter are the long white-tipped toenails (see below). In the world of pond turtles only the males possess the long painted fingernails. They use them to attract females with “come-hither” waves and to tickle the sides of their necks.
Even the paddle-like back feet are works of adaptive art (see here). All of the toes are fully connected by a web and the innermost toe is reduced to a flipper. All the feet are used for swimming. The hind feet provide the propulsion and the front feet serve for directional and sexual orientation.
I slipped this fellow back into his element with some slight regret. The glassy surface of the lake reflected every detail of the cloudy morning sky above and the groves of fiery fall maples along the near shore. His introduction broke that mirrored stillness with a set of slow concentric ripples. The ripples were not long for the world and they quickly melted back into the smoothness. Both of us had other things to do.
We caught several large fish after this event and later cooked them over a roaring cedar wood campfire, but it was the one that “got away” that made the deepest impression of my day.