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The Western Painted Turtle is found in the north central and western plains of North America, from southern Canada into Washington, across to Michigan and south through Kansas and Missouri. In Wyoming its range lies in the plains of eastern counties, the Powder River Basin, and the Big Horn Basin. It prefers the marshy habitats of ponds, small lakes, rivers, and slow streams of the prairie life zone where there is abundant aquatic vegetation and partially submerged rocks and logs.
They are a highly aquatic species (though less so than snapping and softshell turtles), but they do seem to enjoy spending hours basking in the sun—often crowding onto a favorite “tanning salon” prized by others of its kind. They are cautious loungers; when alarmed, they flop back in the water, swim to the safety of a nearby area, and then poke their head out to further study the situation. They are a diurnal species and active from April into October. After emerging from their nocturnal, underwater retreat, they bask in the morning sun before foraging for plant and animal matter. These turtles are not aggressive and rarely if ever bite, but they will scratch and hiss when annoyed—preferring to void their bladder to express displeasure when handled.
They are a medium sized turtle with a maximum carapace length (CL) of 8-9 inches. The oval shaped upper shell is somewhat flattened and smooth, not keeled or ridged like the snapping turtle’s. The carapace is dark green (becoming even darker with age) and the sutures (seams) between the individual scutes (plate like scales) are yellow or reddish orange. The 5-clawed feet are strongly webbed. Males are slightly smaller than females and they have longer front claws. The head and neck (and to a lesser extent the legs and tail) are dark green with intricate yellow lines forming a motif similar to the arches, swirls, and whorls of a fingerprint. It is the ventral view of these turtles that is diagnostic: the exposed underside of the carapace and its bridge connection with the plastron is a colorful reddish orange with a swirling, almost cursive pattern of yellow and green; the coloration continues on to the plastron where the pattern becomes bilateral (mirror image) with lobes of the vermiculations extending outward from the center and looking something like a Rorschach’s Ink Blot. (Quite nicely done!)
Mating begins with the male approaching the female from the front (head to head) where he titillates her by stroking her head and neck with his claws. Once accepted, the male will mount from the rear and initiate copulation, transferring sperm to her cloaca. The female will store the sperm (delayed fertilization) until she is ready to begin egg production. During egg production the ova are first fertilized and then components such as yolk, albumen, various membranes, and eventually the shell are laid down as the product moves down the assembly line of the reproductive tract.
Nesting begins once the female has assembled her eggs, generally in June or July but perhaps later if she is producing a second clutch. She will move to a nearby area within 100 yards of water and search for a suitable site containing soft soil with good exposure to the sun. She then digs a shallow cavity about 6 inches deep, deposits 4-12 eggs, and covers the nest before returning to the water. The oval shaped eggs are just over 1 inch in diameter with flexible shells that eventually harden. Incubation takes 8-12 weeks and the hatchlings may emerge in the fall—but more typically they overwinter in the underground nest and emerge the following spring.