Painted turtles are one of the most popular species of turtle in the world. Here is how to identify what painted turtle species you have.
Painted turtles are awesome. Next to red-eared sliders, they are perhaps the most identifiable species of turtle in the world.
I’ve had quite a few people ask me for help in identifying what type of painted turtle they have. So, I created this article as a kind of short-cut answer guide.
Painted Turtle Sub-Species
Before we get started, let’s have a quick science 101 lesson.
There are thousands of different turtle species in the world. A species refers to a group of turtles that can potentially interbreed with each other.
A sub-species on the other hand is a group of similar-looking turtles within a species. In our case, the species we are trying to identify are painted turtles.
There are 4 sub-species of painted turtle. The scientific name for this animal is Chrysemys picta.
- Eastern Painted Turtle (C. P. picta).
- Midland Painted Turtle (C. P. marginata).
- Western Painted Turtle (C.P. dorsalis).
- Southern Painted Turtle (C.P. bellii).
How To Tell What Painted Turtle Species You Have
So, how do you identify what sub-species you have?
It’s actually not that difficult.
In order to identify what sub-species of painted turtle you are looking at, first look at their appearance and markings. Then, check their size. This should leave you feeling quite confident about your identification.
Let’s start by identifying a painted turtle by its appearance because this is the easiest method.
How To Identify A Painted Turtle by Appearance
This method is pretty easy if you know what to look for.
Let’s start with the most easily recognizable subspecies of the painted turtle, the Southern painted turtle.
How To Identify A Southern Painted Turtle
The Southern Painted Turtle is super easy to recognize. Their plastron (the part of their shell that is on the bottom) is solid yellow.
More importantly, they are the ONLY sub-species that have a thin, solid-colored line running down the middle of their shell, from top to bottom.
Next time you see a painted turtle and notice a thin solid line running down its shell, you’ll know its a Southern.
How To Identify A Western Painted Turtle
Next is the Western painted turtle.
Usually, Westerns have really dark-green or olive-colored shells.
Here is how you can tell a Western painted turtle. Now, I’ve got to warn you! You might either have to be patient or get your hands a little dirty!
You’ll need to look at the bottom of its shell. This is called the plastron.
Notice how the shell isn’t a solid color? That means it’s not a Southern painted turtle.
Western painted turtles usually have colored markings. More importantly, they have lots of black blotches and colors on their plastron.
How to Identify Eastern And Midland Painted Turtles
The next 2 sub-species, the Eastern and Midland Turtles, are both very very similar.
In fact, they are so similar that if you don’t know what to look for, you’ll probably misidentify them.
Here’s how you can differentiate them.
Look at the Eastern Painted Turtle’s shell. Can you see how the rows of its scutes are all lined up? Look at the horizontal rows. You should see that they more or less fit perfectly with each other.
Now, compare that with the Midlands Painted Turtle. This species’ rows of scutes are NOT lined up? They are staggered. The top of each scute meets the middle of the scute right next to it, and so on.
Moreover, the plastron of a Midlands turtle isn’t entirely solid-yellow like Eastern and Southern painted turtles. Instead, they will have a dark-colored or black blotch somewhere in the center region.
Another way to check is to:
- Check the bottom of their shells (the plastron).
- Eastern painted turtles’ plastrons are solid yellow (like Southern painted turtles).
- Midlands painted turtles’ plastrons have a black or dark-colored region in the center.
Next, let’s look at size differences. This, combined with their appearance, will really help you identify what painted turtle sub-species you are looking at. Now, I’ve got to say beforehand, you may need to bust out your ruler on this one!
How To Identify A Painted Turtle by Size
This method certainly has its limitations, as it won’t work if you’ve got a baby or juvenile turtle, but it certainly can make you feel more confident about your identification with fully-grown turtles.
Like a lot of species, female painted painted turtles are larger than male painted turtles, but that isn’t important here.
Basically, there are some very big differences in size between the different sub-species of painted turtle.
The easiest way to do this is to simply measure from the top of the carapace (shell) to the bottom.
Painted Turtle Size
- Western painted turtles are the largest of all the sub-species. Their shell size can reach more than 8 inches (~20 cm). Females can get even larger than this!
- Southern painted turtles are the smallest of all the sub-species. Full-size, their shell size is usually only about 5 inches (~12-13 cm). They almost never get more than 6 inches.
- Midland and Eastern painted turtles are both very similar in size, shape, and appearance. Both sub-species around 7 inches (~18 cm).
So, essentially, if you’ve got a painted turtle with a shell size of 8 inches (~20 cm) and dark-colored markings on the bottom of its shell, you can feel very confident that it’s a Western painted turtle.
If you’ve got a painted turtle with a shell of only 5 inches(~12-13 cm), and has a thin, solid-line running down its shell, you can be certain it’s a Southern painted turtle.
Because they are so similar, both Midland and Eastern painted turtles, will be more difficult to identify. The best way to identify them is to check if their shell scutes are lined up horizontally or not.
How To Identify A Painted Turtle by Region
This method certainly has its limitations, however, if you are out and about in the wild, it works very well.
You can’t rely on it totally if you are looking at a painted turtle in a pet-store but it may at least give you an idea of what species you are looking at.
The natural habitat of painted turtles basically covers from each coast of the United States, up to southern Canada and down to northern Mexico.
Within that range, the different sub-species each occupy a different part.
Having said that, all painted turtles are aquatic turtles that tend to be found in lakes, ponds, and rivers with vegetation and muddy bottoms. They can also sometimes be found in marshlands and wetlands.
If you are out in the wild and spot a painted turtle, depending on where you are, you can fairly easily identify what sub-species you are looking at.
Here are the different ranges and habitats for each of these different types of painted turtles:
Where Different Types of Painted Turtles Can Be Found
The distribution of the Eastern painted turtle: Georgia, South and North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, and up along the coast to Vermont, Maine, and into Nova Scotia.
The range of the Midland painted turtle: Eastern Tennessee, Western Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, Western Illinois, Michigan, Eastern Pennsylvania and most of New York state.
Places where the Southern painted turtle lives: Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Western Tennessee.
The habitat of the Western painted turtle: Kansas, Missouri, Eastern Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa, South and North Dakota, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Montana, throughout Washington State as well as down south around the Rio Grande, Pecos, and Colorado Rivers.
However, this method isn’t entirely foolproof for a few reasons:
- It is possible that the species you are looking at was captured from elsewhere and freed.
- You may be in an area that is in between two species, such as Illinois, where both Western and Midland painted turtles live side by side.
- If you are looking at a painted turtle in a store, there is a good chance that the pet was shipped from outside the area.
Unfortunately, a lot of pet stores get their animals from breeders who are not always local and not always ethical.
For instance, there have been numerous investigations into the breeders that PetCo has used, and they have almost always been found to be extremely depressing, filthy, and inhumane. I would suggest reading through this article here for a bit more information on this. Warning, however, it’s not for the faint of heart!
So, essentially, unless you are in the wild and right in the middle of one of those areas, this method isn’t entirely reliable.
- Identifying a painted turtle sub-species by their geographic region has a lot of limitations.
- Identifying painted turtles by their appearance is the easiest and most effective way to identify what sub-species they are.
- You can rather easily differentiate between Southern and Western painted turtles by the size of their shell at adulthood.