Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

September 27, 2009

Common Beauty

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 3:56 pm

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.


  1. I grew up and became a naturalist in s. Ontario, so caught/saw my share of those beauties. Here in coastal BC we have, unfortunately, only feral Red-eared Sliders to look at. Seeing a painted turtle again would be a time-travel thrill. Great post and pictures. Thanks.

    Comment by Hugh — September 27, 2009 @ 11:06 pm

  2. What a cute little guy. His colors are indeed very vibrant; moreso than any I’ve seen!

    Comment by Monica the Garden Faerie — September 28, 2009 @ 8:57 am

  3. Excellent post – and lovely turtle. You’d think that up here in the Adirondacks, where water is everywhere, that we’d have plenty of turtle life. Sadly, though, I can count on one had the number of painted turtles I’ve seen in the 9 years I’ve been here. Snappers, yes, we have them in copious numbers; they are about the only turtles we see. When I worked in NJ, painted turtles and spotted turtles were quite common – who’d ever think that there are times I miss NJ?!!?

    Comment by Ellen — September 28, 2009 @ 11:33 am

  4. We have one exactly like that one…well maybe a little larger.

    Our neighbor found it wandering in our backyard back in 1999. We named him Freddy because the long nails reminded us of the fictional Freddy Krueger character.

    Very friendly turtle….a non-biter….we keep him in a larger fish tank half filled with water with a ramped island so he can climb out of the water to sun himself.

    He’ll only eat while in the water….loves fish flies, shrimp, occasional feeder fish but that requires the tank to be cleaned more frequently than need be, and of course as you already found out…worms.

    The wife makes a concoction of fish, turtle pellets, calcium supplements, vitamin supplements, parsley, and shrimp mixed with an unflavored gelatin.

    She cuts the mixture into cubes and stabs ’em on the end of a skewer to feed him.

    Gee I hope it’s not illegal to keep ’em as pets.

    Comment by FrenchFry — September 28, 2009 @ 12:00 pm

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