The Painted turtles are one of the most colorful families of aquatic turtles in North America, and they can make highly personable pets in the home aquarium.
Russ Gurley, the author of Keeping and Breeding Freshwater Turtles, writes, “Painted turtles are similar in appearance and behavior to the sliders and cooters. Though Southern Painted turtles are less cold tolerant, as a group painted turtles make wonderful pets as they are small, hardy and become quite tame in captivity.”
These docile turtles love to bask so much that they were once called Sun turtles. The smallest of them grow no larger than 5–6 inches straight carapace length (SCL), and the largest can reach 10 inches. Some turtles can go on to live to 2 to 3 decades if well cared for.
Species of Painted Turtle
Painted turtles don bright red and yellow markings on their skin and wear lovely muted orange and olive color patterns on their shells. The Western Painted even has a red plastron with yellow markings bordering black splotches. Four different species are found within the United States, from the Atlantic to Pacific and as far north as Canada.
The smallest of all the Painted turtles, the Southern only grows to about 5–6 inches SCL. Some males stay at the 3- to 4-inch mark.
Southern Painted turtles have a light orange dorsal stripe running down the back of their brown or olive-colored carapace. They also sport yellow and red striping on the head and arms.
The Midland Painted has yellow striping from the tip of the nose down to the neck, usually shifting to red. Red striping is also present on the legs.
The carapace comes in shades of olive to dark green with red borders along the edges of the scutes. These turtles typically grow to 5–9 inches in length, with males at the smaller end.
The Eastern has a large yellow dot on either side of the head and yellow striping that changes to red down the neck. The legs also have red striping, and the carapace has bright-red crescent shapes along the marginal scutes.
Males can grow to 4–6 inches in length, while females can reach 6–8 inches.
The largest and most colorful, the Western has vibrant yellow striping on the head and legs, and its plastron is red with black and yellow blotching.
Males get to be about 4–6 inches, and females can reach 8–10 inches when fully grown. Good filtration and space are musts for these turtles.
A 75-gallon aquarium will allow decent swimming space for Painted turtles on the smaller scale, usually males.
For females and the larger Western sub-species, provide 125 gallons and up. Think about adding aquatic plants to their tanks as well. Gurley states, “A lot of aquatic vegetation seems to keep these turtles happy.”
Water and Basking Temperatures
Keep the water around the low to mid-70s F. The basking temps should be in the range of high 80s to low 90s F.
Heating and Lighting
A heat lamp and UVB light source must be provided for these turtles over the basking area. The turtles will bask right on schedule to get the heat and UVB rays they need.
Offer a rounded diet of Mazuri and Reptomin pellets, crickets, earthworms, bloodworms, veggies and aquatic plants.
Once acclimated, these turtles will become very tame, often begging for food or simply seeking out interaction.
Keep Them Warm
Painted turtles appreciate not just the sun but also steady warmth in their habitat.
If keeping in outdoor ponds, provide a terrestrial hibernation site in winter with piles of leaves, mulch and hay. With the exception of the Southern Painted, the other subspecies should hibernate just fine. Be sure to house Southerns indoors for the winter if they normally live in outdoor ponds.
For indoor setups, you can keep the water warm by using submersible heaters and maintaining the temperature in the 78 F to 82 F range. It’s a good idea to also use a floating thermometer, just to check from time to time in case the heater stops working.
To avoid your turtle burning itself, use a piece of PVC to create a casing around the submersible heaters. Drill holes all along the pipe to allow the heat to flow out, then insert the heater within.
Check out these adorable Eastern Painted turtles:
Painted turtles aren’t just colorful aquarium conversation starters but also fun, interactive pets.
As long as their care requirements are met, they can give years of enjoyment to keepers and their families. Be prepared to have an experienced reptile vet on hand for checkups and any potential illnesses.
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Angela DeRiso is a freelance writer passionate about the proper education, care and rescue of all animals we share our lives with. You can read her articles on HealthyPets, Tampa Bay House Rabbit Rescue, the Suncoast Herpetological Society newsletter and other publications.