A Guide to the Amphibians
and Reptiles of California

Western Painted Turtle - Chrysemys picta bellii

(Gray, 1831)
Click on a picture for a larger view

Western Painted Turtle California Locations
Range in California: Red

Alien Herps in California

observation link

This is an alien species that has been introduced into California. It is not a native species.

Western Painted Turtle Western Painted Turtle Western Painted Turtle
Adult, San Luis Obispo County
© Brian Hubbs
Adult, Solano County © Brian Hubbs Adult, Solano County, with Western Pond Turtle on right © Brian Hubbs
Western Painted Turtle Western Painted Turtle Western Painted Turtle
Adult, Sacramento County © Justin Distant adult, San Diego County
Western Painted Turtle Western Painted Turtle Western Painted Turtle
This painted turtle was found wandering on land in a suburban area next to wilderness in Malibu, Los Angeles County.
Western Painted Turtle Western Painted Turtle Western Painted Turtle
Sub-adult, Sacramento County © Justin Large adult melanistic Red-eared Slider on left
Sub-adult Western Painted Turtle
on right
Sacramento County © Justin
Differentiating Western Painted Turtles From Red-eared Sliders    (More Here)
Red-eared Slider Western Painted Turtle
turtle turtle turtle
Red stripes occur behind the eyes
(sometimes missing on older individuals)
Yellow stripes occur on the head with no red markings.
turtle turtle Western Painted Turtle
The rear edge of the shell is serrated.

The shell is not marked with red.
The rear edge of the shell is smooth, not serrated.

The shell is usually marked with red.
Western Painted Turtles from Outside California
Western Painted Turtle Western Painted Turtle Western Painted Turtle
  Adult, Manitoba, Canada  
Western Painted Turtle Western Painted Turtle Western Painted Turtle
  Adult, Manitoba, Canada  
Western Painted Turtle Western Painted Turtle Western Painted Turtle
Adult, Spokane County, Washington
Western Painted Turtle Western Painted Turtle Western Painted Turtle
Juvenile, Spokane County, Washington
Western Painted Turtle Habitat Western Painted Turtle habitat Western Painted Turtle habitat
Habitat, Santa Barbara County Habitat, San Diego County
  Pacific Pond Turtle Habitat  
  Habitat, San Luis Obispo County
© Brian Hubbs

More pictures of this turtle and its habitats in the Northwest can be seen here.

Short Videos
Western Painted Turtles Western Painted Turtles  
Painted turtles at a pond in Okanagan County, Washington. Painted turtles at a wetlands in Canada.  
2.5 - 10 inches in shell length (6.3 - 25.4 cm). (Stebbins 2003)

Appearance Color and Pattern
A small turtle with red markings on the marginals and a smooth, oval, somewhat flattened keelless carapace which is black, brown, or olive in color with a network of faint light lines and olive, yellowish, or red borders along front edge of the shields. The posterior rim of the carapace has a smooth (not serrated) border.
The limbs and head are black to olive and marked with yellow lines.
Yellow stripes extend rearward from underneath the eyes and often from below the jaw.
The upper jaw is notched in front.
The unhinged plastron is reddish with a large dark mark in the center which branches out between the scutes.
Male / Female Differences
Males are smaller than females and have very long nails on the front feet.
A male's plastron is more concave toward the rear than it is on a female.
The plastron coloring on juveniles is more strongly contrasted than on adults.

Similar Species
Turtles of another alien species - Red-eared Slider, Tracemys scripta elegans, are more common in California waters than painted turtles. You can use a couple of details to tell them apart in the field if you can get close enough, the color behind the eye and the rear of the shell. See above.
If you get the turtle in hand, you can also look at the plastron, which will be marked with a lot of red on the painted turtle but not marked with red on the slider.

Life History and Behavior

Aquatic and diurnal. Sleeps at night on the bottom or on a partially submerged object. Probably active all year long in the south but inactive during cold periods. In the north, probably hibernates beginning in late fall, emerging in March or April.
Often seen basking on rocks, logs, or dirt banks, sometimes in large groups.
Relatively cold-tolerant. In some areas, they can be observed swimming under ice just before it melts in March.
Turtles Walking on Land Do Not Always Need to be Picked Up and Rescued
Turtles sometimes leave the water to search for food, a better place to live, a mate, or to lay their eggs in the spring - typically from March to June. If you see a turtle walking on the land, it is probably not sick or lost, so the best thing you can do for the turtle is to leave it alone. Some people want to help a turtle they think is in danger by picking it up and bringing it home or to a wildlife rehabilitation center, but most of the time this harms the turtle by removing it from the wild without reason. Sometimes turtles do get lost or stranded in yards or on busy roads or somewhere where they may be in danger. If you find one in such a situation, it's ok to move it out of danger, but it's best to leave it in a safe place as close to where you found it as possible.
Diet and Feeding
An omnivorous generalist - eating almost anything found in its habitat, including insects, worms, snails, crayfish, fish, amphibians and tadpoles, carrion, and aquatic vegetation. Young are carnivorous, but become more herbivorous as they grow older.
Becomes sexually mature when it reaches the appropriate size, typically in 3 - 6 years.
Breeds from March to June.
When the environmental conditions are just right, the female digs a nest at a sunny site near water in loose soil, anytime between May and August. Hot weather and drought can cause her to delay her nesting for a few weeks.
She lays from one to 23 eggs.
Egg incubated naturally in a Painted Turtle nest observed in Pennsylvania took 72 - 80 days to hatch.
(Ernst 1994)

Ponds, marshes, lakes, ditches, quiet streams with sandy or muddy bottoms and aquatic vegetation.

Geographical Range

Chrysemys picta - Painted Turtle - is the most widespread species of freshwater turtle inhabiting North America, ranging across the entire continent from southeastern Canada to Louisiana to Washington, with isolated populations in Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.

The species is reported to be introduced and established in waters throughout populated areas of coastal southern California, however I can find very few sight records or museum specimens for this species from anywhere in California. It is likely that most of the sightings of this species did not result in specimens being collected and deposited in a museum or written up as a sight record in a herpetological journal. It's also possible that some turtles identified at a distance as painted turtles might be Red-eared Sliders since they are similar in appearance at a distance.

My range map shows the same general range in the heavily-population region of coastal southern California that is found in most field guides, including Stebbins and McGinnis, 2012, even though I cannot find very many records from this area. It makes sense that they are found in the area, although not in every pond and lake. I suspect that the species can be found in other locations throughout the state where pet owners have dumped them, but it is questionable if they established anywhere outside of Southern California.

The museum records (accessed 2014 and July 2016) I have found so far for the species are:

- A painted turtle that was killed on a road from Camp Pendleton in San Diego County,

- Painted turtles from "Turtle Dreams" a turtle rescue center in Montecito in Santa Barbara County, and

- A painted turtle said to be from the San Joaquin River near Stockton, which was bought at a market in San Francisco in 1896 and lost in the 1906 San Francisco fire. It is doubtful the San Joaquin River turtle, if that location is accurate, would have been an abandoned pet back in 1896. It might have been from a population introduced to provide turtles for food. I don't know if that was ever done, but it seems likely since terrapins were farmed in the San Francisco Bay and since frogs were also farmed for food in northern California.

- A painted turtle from a Goleta stream from 1973.

Stebbins (2003, 2013) lists "Goleta at Lake Los Carneros, Santa Barbara Co." as another locality. I haven't found the source of this record yet, but it might be the same as the 1973 Goleta record.

Counties with records of painted turtles that are shown in the NAFHA database (accessed 5/15) that are not yet shown on my map are Contra Costa, Santa Clara, Napa, Solano, and San Luis Obispo.

These are some sight records that I know about:

- Fair Oaks near the lower American River
- UC Davis arboretum
- Putah Creek near Davis
- Temecula
- The Los Angeles County arboretum in Arcadia
- Lake Poway, San Diego County

I've also seen pictures of an Eastern Painted Turtle - C. p. picta, found on the Stanislaus River below Knights Ferry.

I would appreciate getting email from anyone who has seen a painted turtle in the wild in California, including pictures that I can use here, if possible.

In the late 1970s, some painted turtles were released at Kaiser Meadow in Siskiyou County. A local science teacher notified Robert Stebbins resulting in the inclusion of the location in his subsequent field guides (including his final 2013 guide). Searches there since the 1980s have uncovered no painted turtles, only native pond turtles, so it appears that there is no established population at Kaiser Meadow, so I have left that location off my range map. (James Buskirk, pers. comm.)

Full Species Range Map
Notes on Taxonomy
Three subspecies of Chrysemys picta are recognized, but some researchers want to return the full species Chrysemys dorsalis - Southern Painted Turtle, to subspecies status.

In 2003, Starkey, David E., H. Bradley Shaffer, Russell L. Burke, Michael R. J. Forstner, John B. Iverson, Fredric J. Janzen, Anders G. J. Rhodin, and Gordon R. Ultsch [Molecular systematics, phylogeography, and the effects of Pleistocene glaciation in the Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta) complex. Evolution 57(1): 119-128] determined that Chrysemys picta consists of two species. If this is accepted, C. p. bellii will become Chrysemys picta with no subspecies recognized.

Alternate and Previous Names (Synonyms)

Chrysemys picta - Western Painted Turtle (Stebbins & McGinnis 2012)
Chrysemys picta bellii - Western Painted Turtle (Stebbins 2003)
Chrysemys picta - Painted Turtle (Stebbins 1954, 1966, 1985)

Conservation Issues  (Conservation Status)
As an introduced species, it is possible that this turtle competes with and therefore poses a threat to native Pacific Pond Turtles.
Family Emydidae Box and Water or Pond Turtles Gray, 1825
Genus Chrysemys Painted Turtles Gray, 1844
Species picta Painted Turtle (Schneider, 1783)

bellii Western Painted Turtle (Gray, 1831)
Original Description
Chrysemys picta - (Schneider, 1783) - Naturg. Schildkr., p. 348
Chrysemys picta bellii - (Gray, 1831) - Syn. Rept., p. 31

from Original Description Citations for the Reptiles and Amphibians of North America © Ellin Beltz

Meaning of the Scientific Name
Chrysemys - Greek - khrysos - golden, yellow or lt. green, and emys - turtle - probably refers to the yellow stripes on the head of all members of this genus
- Latin - painted, embroidered - probably refers to the delicate shell pattern
bellii - honors Bell, Thomas

from Scientific and Common Names of the Reptiles and Amphibians of North America - Explained © Ellin Beltz

Related or Similar California Turtles
T. s. elegans - Red-eared Slider

A. m. marmorata - Northern Pacific Pond Turtle

A. m. pallida - Southern Pacific Pond Turtle

More Information and References
California Department of Fish and Wildlife

Stebbins, Robert C., and McGinnis, Samuel M.  Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles of California: Revised Edition (California Natural History Guides) University of California Press, 2012.

Stebbins, Robert C. California Amphibians and Reptiles. The University of California Press, 1972.

Stebbins, Robert C. A Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians. 3rd Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003.

Behler, John L., and F. Wayne King. The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Reptiles and Amphibians. Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.

Powell, Robert., Joseph T. Collins, and Errol D. Hooper Jr. A Key to Amphibians and Reptiles of the Continental United States and Canada. The University Press of Kansas, 1998.

Bartlett, R. D. & Patricia P. Bartlett. Guide and Reference to the Turtles and Lizards of Western North America (North of Mexico) and Hawaii. University Press of Florida, 2009.

Carr, Archie. Handbook of Turtles: The Turtles of the United States, Canada, and Baja California. Cornell University Press, 1969.

Ernst, Carl H., Roger W. Barbour, & Jeffrey E. Lovich. Turtles of the United States and Canada. Smithsonian Institution 1994. (2nd Edition published 2009)
Lemm, Jeffrey. Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles of the San Diego Region (California Natural History Guides). University of California Press, 2006.

Conservation Status

The following status listings are copied from the April 2018 Special Animals List and the 2017 Endangered and Threatened Animals List, both of which are published by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

If no status is listed here, the animal is not included on either CDFW list. This most likely indicates that there are no serious conservation concerns for the animal. To find out more about an animal's status, you can go to the NatureServe and IUCN websites to check their rankings.

Check here to see the most current complete lists.

There are no significant conservation concerns for this animal in California.

Status Listing
NatureServe Global Ranking
NatureServe State Ranking
U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) None
California Endangered Species Act (CESA) None
California Department of Fish and Wildlife None
Bureau of Land Management None
USDA Forest Service None


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