Southern Painted Turtle, Chrysemys dorsalis

Southern Painted Turtle was a subspecies of the Painted Turtle until recent genetic analysis indicated it was a distinct species.  It is thought that they occur mostly in the western Tennessee coastal plain based upon the preliminary morphological characteristics used in identification.

Description: A small, colorful, aquatic turtle (4.0 to 6.0 inches in length) with a smooth olive to black carapace (upper shell), which lacks a keel. Marginal scutes (plates) have prominent red coloration.   The sides of the head and chin have yellow striping and a noticeable yellow spot occurs behind each eye.   They usually have a prominent red or orangish stripe running down the center of the back and a yellow plastron.   Young are more brightly colored and have a slight keel on their back.

Similar Species: The Painted Turtle usually lacks the broad red or orangish stripe running down the center of the back, but genetic analysis is required to positively distinguish from Southern Painted Turtle.

Habitat: Prefers shallow bodies of water with soft, muddy bottoms and plentiful aquatic vegetation; examples include lakes, rivers, ponds, wetlands, ditches, oxbows, and reservoirs.

Diet: Plants and animals including algae, duckweed, snails, crayfish, frogs, and fish.

Breeding information: Courtship and breeding occurs in late winter and spring.   Females will dig a nest in open sandy areas, or areas with loose soil, and lay 4-20 elliptical white to cream colored eggs per clutch.   Eggs hatch in approximately 6-10 weeks, remaining in the nest through the winter until emerging in the spring.

Status in Tennessee: No conservation concerns, but they are vulnerable to destruction of habitat and being killed on roadways.

Fun Facts:

  • Their colorful shells often are covered by a brown or reddish deposit, which can be scraped away.
  • May lay more than one clutch of eggs per year.

Best places to see in Tennessee: In west Tennessee perched on fallen trees around shallow ponds or lakes.


Conant, R. and Collins, J. 1998. Peterson Field Guides: Reptiles and Amphibians (Eastern/Central North America).  Houghton Mifflin Company, New York. 616pp.

Iverson, J. B., P. A. Meylan, and, M. E. Seidel. 2008. Testudines: Turtles. In: B. I. Crother (ed.), Scientific and Standard English Names of Amphibians and Reptiles of North America North of Mexico, pp. 67-74. SSAR Herpetological Circular 37.

Southern Painted Turtle
Southern Painted Turtle Range Map