Painted turtles are one of the most popular species of turtle in the world. The hard part is how to tell what painted turtle species you have. Here’s how.
Painted turtles are awesome. Next to red eared sliders they are perhaps the most identifiable species of turtle in the world.

How to Tell What Painted Turtle Species You Have

I’ve had quite a few people ask me for help in identifying what particular sub-species of painted turtle they have, and so alas, I created this article as a kind of short-cut, quick answer guide.

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, I would suggest first remembering what sub-species live where, then judge by their appearance and markings, and lastly, by their size. This should whittle down your options pretty quickly and leave you feeling quite confident about your identification.

I’ll go through this from geographic region, to appearance and then size, as I think it’s best to start from the easy to more difficult methods of identification (more on that later).

Method #1: Identifying 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 in a pet-store however, 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 which tend to be found in lakes, ponds and rivers with vegetation and muddy bottoms. They can also sometimes be found in marshlands and wetlands.

Painted Turtle Sub-Species

There are 4 sub-species of painted turtle. The scientific name for this animal is Chrysemys picta.

  • the Eastern Painted Turtle (C. P. picta)
  • the Midland Painted Turtle (C. P. marginata)
  • the Western Painted Turtle (C.P. dorsalis)
  • the Southern Painted Turtle (C.P. bellii)

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 sub-species:

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.

Problems With This Method

This method isn’t entirely foolproof for a few reasons however:

  • 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 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 those areas, this method isn’t entirely reliable.

The next method however, will really help you be able to identify specifically what sub-species you are looking at.

Method #2: Identifying by Appearance

This method is going to be a lot more reliable.

Let’s start with the most easily recognizable sub-species of painted turtle, the Southern Painted.

How to Identify a Southern Painted Turtle

The Southern Painted Turtle is super easy to recognize. Their plastrons (the part of their shell that is on the bottom) are completely 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 Tell 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, but you might either have to be patient or get your hands a little dirty.

You’ll have to look at its plastron (the bottom part of their shell).

Notice how the shell isn’t a solid color? That means it’s not a Southern.

Westerns usually have colored markings and more importantly, 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 more or less perfectly? 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, as are the Easterns and Southerns. Instead, they will have a dark-colored or black blotch somewhere in the center region.

Another way to double-check is to:

  • check the bottom of their shells (the plastron)
  • Eastern Painted Turtles’ plastrons are solid yellow (like Southerns)
  • Midlands Painted Turtles’ plastrons have a black or dark-colored region in the center

Next, I want to move to the last method to really confirm what species you have, however, you’ll need to bust out your ruler for this one.

Method #3: Identifying 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.

Like a lot of species, female painteds are larger than male painteds, but that isn’t what to look for here.

The easiest way to do this is to simply measure from the top of the carapace (shell) to the bottom.

What to Look for When Identifying by Size

  • Western Painted Turtles are the largest of all the sub-species, their carapace shell size can reach more than 8 inches (~20 cm) (females can get even larger)
  • Southern Painted Turtles are the smallest of all the sub-species, at full-size, their carapace size is usually only about 5 inches (~12-13 cm), and almost never gets more than 6 inches
  • Midlands and Eastern Painted Turtles are both very similar in size, shape and appearance, with both sub-species around 7 inches (~18 cm)

So, essentially, if you’ve got a painted turtle with a carapace size of 8 inches (~20 cm) and dark-colored markings on its plastron, you can feel very confident that its a Western.

If you’ve got a painted turtle with a carapace shell of only 5 inches(~12-13 cm), and with a thin, solid-line running down its shell, you can be certain its a Southern.

Both Midlands and Easterns, because they are so similar, will be more difficult to identify, as you’ll need to check if their scutes are lined up or stagger to identify them.

That’s how you do it!

A Summary

  • 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 Southerns and Western Painted Turtles by the size of their carapace shell at adulthood

About the Author

Hi, I'm J and I'm the chelonian-obsessed creator of this website. Feel free to leave a comment below, as unlike a snapping turtle, I promise I won't bite!

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