Southern Painted Turtle

Chrysemys dorsalis


Photo of a southern painted turtle basking on a log.
In Missouri, the southern painted turtle is found only in the Bootheel.
Noppadol Paothong

Emydidae (emydid turtles) in the order Testudines (turtles)


A colorful aquatic turtle and the smallest painted turtle in North America. The upper shell is olive brown to almost black, with a prominent orange, red, or yellow stripe running down the center of the upper shell. It’s the only painted turtle with the stripe. The outer edge of the shell is often orange, orange-red, or yellow. The lower shell is plain yellow; sometimes there is a faint brown blotch along the center.

Similar species: The western painted turtle (Chrysemys picta bellii) is found through most of the rest of the state. It is similar, but lacks the prominent lengthwise shell stripe. The lower shell has intricate dark markings that follow the plate seams outward from the center.


Upper shell length: 4–5 inches.


Video of a southern painted turtle.

Southern Painted Turtle-20180329-101.jpg

A small dark turtle with a red streak down the back of its shell is perched atop a tree stump in the water.
Southern Painted Turtle perched on a stump at Mingo Wildlife Refuge
Habitat and conservation

Prefers still, quiet water of shallow swamps, streams, sloughs, and oxbow lakes. Also requires numerous basking sites. Because it is limited to our southeastern swamps, it is important to preserve what is left of that habitat in our state.


Aquatic invertebrates, such as snails, crayfish, and insects, make up the bulk of this turtle’s food, but some plant materials are also consumed.

image of Southern Painted Turtle Distribution Map
Distribution in Missouri

Only in the southeastern corner of Missouri.


As a turtle that is limited to our southeastern swamps, this is a species that relies on that particular habitat for its survival. Therefore, it is important to preserve those Bootheel swamps that remain. This species used to be considered a subspecies of painted turtle (Chrysemys picta dorsalis) but has been raised to full species status.

Life cycle

Courtship and mating take place in shallow water from April to June. Females laden with eggs will leave water and search for a suitable place to dig a nest and lay eggs. A south-facing, gentle slope with loose dirt or sand and some low vegetation is ideal. The average clutch has 4 eggs, and hatching occurs in 8–9 weeks.

Human connections

Painted turtles are often kept as pets in captivity, however a great many of those die due to improper care, including specific food, lighting, water, and heating needs. But in nature, these colorful turtles take care of themselves, brightening their swampy homes as they bask in the sun.

Ecosystem connections

This turtle’s small size probably arose from competition with other turtles in the same area. Their special size allows them to utilize a niche that is usually not occupied by larger, similar turtles. Though the shell protects adults from predators, young and eggs are vulnerable.