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Critters of North Idaho: Painted Turtle

by Christian Ryan Correspondent to
| March 23, 2020 10:18 AM

From the red and yellow stripes running down its neck and the other colorful markings adorning its shell, the painted turtle is instantly recognizable to all nature lovers. As the snow melts and the rising temperature announces the promise of spring, scores of these shelled reptiles are clambering out of their burrows deep in the mud to take advantage of the warm sunshine.

Painted turtles are members of the emydidae, or terrapin, family, and they are the most common and widespread kind of turtle in North America. They are so successful in fact that they diversified into four species. The largest species is also the only one native to Idaho: the western painted turtle (Chrysemys picta bellii), which can grow up to ten inches in length. In addition to size, the reddish coloration displayed on the bottom half of its shell sets it apart from other species of painted turtle.

Like other reptiles, these critters are cold-blooded. This means not that they necessarily have cold blood, but that they must use external sources of heat (usually the sun) in order to remain active. This gives them an advantage in the wintertime; North Idaho winters are too cold for these turtles, so they remain tucked away in their burrows. Being cold-blooded, they don’t need to eat nearly as much food as a similarly-sized mammal and can last the entire cold season without leaving their burrow to find something to eat.

When it finally is warm enough for them to be active outside, the turtles leave their comfy burrows and take part in their first order of business: basking in the sun to increase their body temperature. Painted turtles usually live in very watery habitats, like bogs, lake edges, ponds, marshes and slow-moving streams where there are plenty of rocks, logs and fallen trees for them to sunbathe. Sometimes as many as 50 will be gathered in one place to do so!

Once sufficiently warm, it is time to track down some food! Painted turtles aren’t particularly picky about what goes into their mouths and will happily consume elodea and other water plants, worms, crickets, small fish, crustaceans and water-dwelling insects. Their small size allows painted turtles more speed than the average turtle, but usually they still aren’t fast enough to outrun raccoons, otters, mink, foxes and other creatures that want to eat them. They can retract their head and legs into their tough shells if they’re in a pinch, but they also spend much of their time near the edge of water so they can simply take the plunge at the first sign of danger.

Painted turtles are popular pets because of their stunning colors and amiable disposition. If you would like to adopt one of these shelled reptiles into your home, don’t take them out of the wild! Those need to remain in their natural habitat. Stop by your local pet store instead!

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