Southern Painted Turtle Care Guide | Diet, Habitat, Breeding, Diseases 

Jun 17, 2022

Southern Painted Turtle Care Guide

Image credit: André Karwath aka Aka (CC License)

The last care guide on our painted turtles series is about Southern painted turtles – one of my absolute favorites. Up until recently, it was believed that a southern painted turtle is a subspecies of the painted turtle family. But recent genetic analysis indicates otherwise – it’s a distinct species. 

Nonetheless, it’s still lovingly called a “painted turtle,” and it does look the part as well. In this care guide, you’ll find all the information you’ll need to raise a southern painted turtle. 

This guide has been prepared carefully and entails knowledge from my own experience of raising painted turtles and the numerous pieces of literature I have read about these reptiles. 

So, let the fun begin!

Southern Painted Turtle At A Glance 

  • Name: Southern Painted Turtle
  • Scientific Name: Chrysemys dorsalis 
  • Family: Emydidae
  • Conservation Status: 
  • Lifespan: 30-40 years
  • Average Size: 4-5 inches
  • Diet: Omnivore
  • Clutch Size: 4-15
  • Egg Incubation Period: 72 days

Southern Painted Turtle Lifespan | How Long Do They Live?

On average, southern painted turtles live for 30-40 years, provided that it’s safe from predators and environmental factors. However, it’s not uncommon for the reptile to only make it to its 20th or 25th birthday and succumb to an illness. 

A few authors on different turtle forums had shared that their southern painted turtles lived for over 5 decades! So right husbandry really goes a long way, I guess! 

How Much Do Southern Painted Turtles Cost?

A captive-bred southern painted turtle hatchling can cost anywhere between $40 to $100, according to the prices listed on the internet. 

A well-started baby fetches a better price – around $120. Naturally, yearlings and juveniles cost higher.

Southern Painted Turtle For Sale | Availability 

A southern painted turtle’s distribution map isn’t as broad as other turtles’. On top of that, their clutch size is smaller. So, it may be comparatively difficult to get your hands on a southern painted turtle. 

Nonetheless, a quick Google search showed that they’re readily available through different online retailers.

Southern Painted Turtle Conservation Status 

The IUCN has not yet listed the southern painted turtle as an endangered species. However, we cannot overlook the fact that their number is plummeting sharply owing to habitat loss. 

These reptiles are limited only to southeastern swamps. Therefore, preserving what is left of these Bootheel swamps is crucial. 

Also, the growing abundance of natural predators and road accidents too can be credited to a decline in the southern painted turtle population. 

Southern Painted Turtle Predators 

Since southern painted turtles don’t grow too big, they are easy prey for numerous predators, big and small, in the wild. The eggs and young hatchlings are the most vulnerable against predators and often don’t live to grow into an adult. 

The main predators of southern painted turtles in the wild are raccoons, coyotes, foxes, skunks, and alligators. The eggs and hatchlings are also preyed upon by snakes, fish, and wading birds. 

Thus, if you plan to raise your painted turtle outdoors, you must secure the area carefully to keep unwanted visitors at bay. 

Southern Painted Turtle Natural Distribution And Habitat 

Southern painted turtles have a limited range compared to other subspecies. They’re primarily found in the Southeastern US states of Illinois, Missouri, Alabama, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Mississippi. 

These reptiles can be found from Illinois and southern Missouri to Louisiana. In Tennessee, they’re found on the western side of the state. In Oklahoma, they’re found in the extreme southeast. 

In Texas, they’re located in the northwest – Caddo Lake region. In Arkansas, they’re found to the west towards Texas, whereas in Alabama, they’re found throughout the state. 

Since these are semi-aquatic turtles, they inhabit shallow water bodies with soft, muddy bottoms and plenty of aquatic vegetation. 

Southern painted turtles live nearby lakes, streams, sloughs, swamps, wetlands, ditches, oxbows, reservoirs, creeks, and slow-moving rivers. 

Southern Painted Turtle Appearance 

Southern painted turtles can be described as small, colorful turtles with a smooth olive or black carapace that lacks a keel. The marginal scutes (plates) have unique red coloration. There’s a yellow stripe on each side of the head and the chin and a big yellow spot behind each eye. 

The most notable feature of southern painted turtles is the prominent orange or red line running down the center of the back.

The plastron is deeply tanned and spotless. There are some red and yellow markings on the limbs. 

Young southern painted turtles take after the adults. However, the juveniles are more brightly colored and have a slight keel on the back. 

Southern Painted Turtle Size 

Southern painted turtles are the smallest of their kind, reaching lengths of just 4-5 inches (10 to 14 cm). Their small stature is one of the reasons why they’re so popular among hobbyists. 

They’re fun-sized. Aren’t they?

Southern Painted Turtle Male VS Female 

Male southern painted turtles are slightly smaller than their female counterparts. They also have long foreclaws that are missing in females. 

Similarly, a male’s top shell is flatter than a female’s. Likewise, a male’s bottom shell is also flatter, whereas a female’s is convex to accommodate eggs. 

Lastly, the cloacal opening in males is located away from the body and further down the tail. On the other hand, it is located close to the body of females. 

Species Similar To Southern Painted Turtle 

At first glance, a western painted turtle looks identical to a southern painted turtle. However, upon close inspection, you notice that the former is relatively bigger. 

It also lacks the iconic lengthwise stripe present in a southern painted turtle. And while a southern painted turtle’s plastron is spotless, a western painted turtle’s plastron features intricate dark markings that follow the seams outward from the middle. 

Southern Painted Turtle Temperament 

Just like with any other species, individual southern painted turtles are going to have their own unique personality and temperament. However, a few stereotypes are common among almost all of them. Let’s discuss them below!

Although southern painted turtles aren’t social animals, they’re tolerant of company and are compatible with sharing a space with those from their own and other species. 

They can be housed with other similarly-sized turtles, terrapins, and even fishes, given that there’s plenty of space and numerous hiding spots. 

While they’d love to have the entire space to themselves, they are known to tolerate the presence of other turtles quite well. 

I dug through some forums and found that many first-time turtle keepers didn’t face any issues caring for the southern painted turtle. These reptiles are hardy, tame, and even social, as they report. And the turtles reportedly didn’t hide when they approached. 

However, bear in mind that both male and female painted turtles can be hostile and aggressive if the space is congested and resources are scarce. They’re just as fond of creature comfort as we are. 

Even if they ever get involved in duels, it seldom translates into grave fights and injuries. But still, it’s essential to know that they don’t thrive on human affection and contact as dogs do.

Because of their petite size and instincts, they do not like being held or handled. If you happen to make quick movements near their head region, they’ll flinch, retract into the shell, or even bite you! So, be careful. 

The only time it is appropriate to handle southern painted turtles is when they’re being inspected for any signs of injury and illness or relocated to safety. 

It’s so obvious, I know, but don’t forget to thoroughly wash your hands with water and soap before and after handling the turtle. Like most reptiles, they’re carriers of the salmonella virus. 

Also, be careful when cleaning their enclosure. As harmless as it looks, it’s not pleasant at all to be bitten by a turtle. 

By the way, here’s a detailed article on what happens when a turtle bites you and what to do next. 

What Happens If A Turtle Bites You? Can They Chop Off Your Fingers?

Southern Painted Turtle Diet 

Southern painted turtles are opportunistic omnivores. They routinely snack on small fish, carrions, inverts, frogs, algae, and even vegetation in the wild. Their diet in captivity should closely resemble what they’d eat in the wild, if not identical. 

Ideally, their diet should be enriched with food rich in protein and vitamins and should have the correct calcium to phosphorus ratio and low fat content. 

These are 3 pointers you should keep in mind when designing your turtle’s meal plan and buying commercial food. 

My one piece of advice would be not to skimp when buying pellets for your turtles since it’s something they’re going to consume daily. I’d recommend Tetra’s ReptoMin as it ticks all the right boxes. 

Here’s a link if you’re interested: 

Your pet turtle’s diet should contain an assortment of commercial pellets, live/frozen treats, and greens to ensure it receives all the required nutrition. Relying on just one type of food for a long time puts your turtle at risk of being malnourished. 

Here’s a list of food you can give as a treat:

  • Live fish 
  • Super worms 
  • Crickets 
  • Mealworms 
  • Trout Chow 
  • Blackworms 
  • Earthworms 

Remember, treats shouldn’t make up more than 10% of your pet’s diet. And don’t give goldfish as it has a very high-fat content. 

Here’s a list of greens the turtles can eat:

  • Dandelion greens 
  • Duckweed 
  • Parsley
  • Romaine lettuce 
  • Hyacinth 
  • Water lettuce 

Assuming a pet turtle’s nutrition requirements are fully met through their diet is just wishful thinking. You need to incorporate concentrated supplements into their diet to ensure good health. 

They particularly need vitamin A and calcium, among other nutrients. Here are Amazon links for both:

How Often And How Much To Feed Southern Painted Turtles?

There’s no rule set in stone when it comes to answering how often and how much to feed southern painted turtles. That being said, the standard practice is to give 1 cup of food every day or every other day. 

Hatchlings and juveniles should be fed every single day. However, adults can be given 1 meal every 2 days. 

Can Southern Painted Turtles Eat Fruits?

Fruits are not something that naturally occurs in a turtle’s diet in the wild. Therefore, they can do perfectly fine without eating fruits. 

However, if you’re feeling generous, giving fruits once in a while in moderation is alright. But most fruits contain a higher percentage of sugar and citric acid than what’s deemed ideal for turtles. So, don’t throw caution to the wind. 

Ideal Habitat For Southern Painted Turtle 

In the wild, as semi-aquatic beings, southern painted turtles live nearby water bodies like lakes, ponds, and creeks. In captivity, you must provide water for swimming and dry land for basking. Painted turtles love to bask big time. 

When setting up a habitat for southern painted turtles, it’s best to take inspiration from their home in the wild. That being said, the setup can be as minimal or as elaborate as you like. 

For the base, you can add substrate or leave it bare. Leaving it bare sure does make cleaning a breeze, but you’ll have to compromise on aesthetics. 

If you want to add substrate, you must choose something big enough to not be gulped down by the turtle or small enough to easily pass down the digestive tract. 

Here’s a quick link to river rocks available on Amazon! I use it in my turtle enclosures. 

Southern painted turtles love being around vegetation. Therefore, they’d sure appreciate the inclusion of a couple of aquatic plants like duckweed and water hyacinth in the tank. You can place these plants strategically to create hiding spots for the turtle. 

For a basking area, I’d recommend leaving it bare except for a large stone slab. You definitely don’t want the turtles to transport sand to the water after they’re done basking. 

I’ve been setting my eyes on this basking platform for a while now. It enjoys pretty rave reviews on Amazon.

And by the way, if you’re raising more than 1 turtle, you should make arrangements for multiple basking and hiding spots. You definitely don’t want them fighting for a spot. 

Recommended Tank Size For Southern Painted Turtle 

Southern painted turtles love to swim. Therefore, as a responsible turtle owner, you should offer a spacious tank with clean water for them to swim around. 

You need to offer a water area at least four times the size of the turtle. Likewise, the depth should be at least 2-3 times the turtle’s length. 

The minimum recommended tank size for a southern painted turtle is 30 gallons, but I’d recommend getting a 50-gallon tank for a single turtle as these are active creatures. You can then allocate 20 gallons extra for each new addition. 

If you don’t want to invest right now in a glass or acrylic tank, you can create a habitat using a kiddie pool, pond liner, or even a large plastic container. The bigger, the better – the turtles don’t care about the aesthetics. 

Also, if you plan on raising your painted turtle outdoors, I’d recommend creating a real miniature pool using pond liners. You can then decorate the pond with real and fake plants, rocks, and even live fish that will serve as fresh treats for your painted turtle. 

Water Parameters For Southern Painted Turtle 

Here’s what water parameters should look like for a southern painted turtle: 

  • Water Temperature: 75-80 degrees F (23-26 degrees C)
  • pH: 6.0-6.9
  • Ammonia: Below 2 PPM
  • Nitrite: Below 2 PPM
  • Carbonate Hardness: 80 PPM
  • General Hardness: 180-200 PPM

As you already know, southern painted turtles love water. Therefore, they need constant access to pure and safe water at all times. They even need water to swallow their food. 

You also probably know that southern painted turtles are messy – staying true to their turtle ways. So, you should always stay on top of water quality. 

Turtles are as healthy as their environment is. If the water quality is foul, the reptile will be susceptible to contracting bacterial, fungal, and parasitic infections. 

That’s not all. 

Although turtles are not as susceptible to ammonia and nitrite as fish and inverts are, it’s still bad for them. Thus, we recommend checking these parameters routinely. 

Here’s a link to API’s freshwater master kit that measures 5 important water parameters – pH, high pH range, nitrite, nitrate, and ammonia. 

The number 1 tip I’d give to keep the water clean for a longer period is feeding it in a different container. And wait until it has pooped before transferring it back to the main tank. 

My turtles usually poop half an hour or an hour after eating. 

Keeping an eye on your turtle’s poop cycle sounds tedious, I know, but it’s going to save you so much time and effort in the long run. 

While on the subject, let me share a helpful article with you. It’s about the causes behind a cloudy turtle tank and effective measures to tackle it. 

Cloudy Turtle Tank Water? Don’t Make These 4 Mistakes!

A tank that houses turtles should be equipped with a filter powerful enough to get rid of the debris on a daily basis. Here’s a filter I recommend:

Also, if your turtle’s pond is outdoors, ensure it’s in a shaded region. You’ll also have to clean the water daily with the help of a filter pump or water vacuum. 

Should You Dechlorinate Water For Southern Painted Turtles?

Although turtles are not as susceptible to chlorine as fish and inverts are, it’s better to dechlorinate the water first. Chlorine might irritate your turtle’s eyes, to say the least. 

Chlorine will also eliminate the good bacteria colony present in the tank. It will, in turn, wreck the tank’s nitrogen cycle and make it inhospitable. 

In some parts of the country, chloramine is used alongside chlorine to purify tap water. If that’s the case in your region, you should use a water conditioner that has been specifically labeled to remove chlorine and chloramine. 

Lighting For Southern Painted Turtle 

Turtles need light more than we do because they are ectothermic beings who rely on external environments to maintain their body temperature. If you raise your turtles outdoors, the sunlight will provide enough light and heat. 

However, if your turtle lives indoors, you must supplement light and heat. 

Getting to the point, turtles require UVB light and supplemental heat light to synthesize vitamin D3. 

They need 12 hours of UVB light every day. Lack of UVB lighting means that the turtle cannot synthesize vitamin D3, leading to detrimental issues like shell deformity and metabolic bone disease. 

For heat, you can depend on ceramic heat emitters and heat lights. 

All in all, even though painted turtles are highly resistant to cold temperatures, unlike some terrestrial species, they’re more active and have a good appetite when it’s warm and sunny. 

But it doesn’t mean you can go ahead and place the tank in the sun’s path. This will lead to overheating and a whole other set of problems. 

Before we end this section, let me post a link to the 10.0 UVB compact fluorescent light that I use in my turtles’ enclosures. What’s good about this bulb is that it will fit into any standard clamp-lamp. So you won’t have to spend extra on buying a separate ballast. 

Right Temperature For Southern Painted Turtle 

The temperature that we find comfortable is way off the mark for turtles. It’s way too cold for them. That’s because, as we discussed above, they are ectothermic beings that rely on external temperature to regulate their body temperature. 

Thus, it’s super important to maintain the correct temperatures in their respective habitats. You should aim for a gradual temperature gradient. 

The water’s temperature should be between 75-80 degrees Fahrenheit (23-36 degrees Celsius), the ambient air’s temperature should be between 80-85 degrees Fahrenheit (26-29 degrees Celsius), and the basking area’s temperature should be between 85-95 degrees Fahrenheit (29-35 degrees Celsius). 

You can buy your turtles an electronic thermometer with an alarm that goes off if the temperature drops too low or goes high. This would make life easier for you. 

Common Health Problems In Southern Painted Turtles 

Southern painted turtles are healthy, but they’re only as healthy as their enclosures are. Despite their hardy nature, they can fall prey to infections and illness if malnourished and raised in subpar conditions. Almost any disease can be traced back to one of these reasons. 

The telltale signs of illness in southern painted turtles are scaly skin, lesions, open wounds, swollen eyes, labored breathing, bubbles forming from the nose, and inability to swim. 

Let’s discuss some of the most common turtle ailments in brief below:

Metabolic Bone Disease 

Calcium/phosphorus imbalance in the body causes metabolic bone disease in reptiles, which in turn is the result of UVB light deficiency.

This condition is characterized by a severely weakened skeletal system, carapace, and plastron. Turtles suffering from metabolic bone disease grow at a very slow rate and may end up with a deformed body. 

In the later stages of this baneful disease, the turtle will experience extreme fatigue, involuntary tremors, and even bone fractures. 

But luckily, if treated in time, the effects of the metabolic bone disease can be nullified. You’ll need expert help for this. The fractured bones are treated by splinting or casting. You’ll also have to provide your pet with calcium supplements. 

Hypovitaminosis A 

Hypervitaminosis A is caused by malnourishment. For instance, if your southern painted turtle primarily snacks on meat, iceberg lettuce, and commercial pellets, the reptile will contract hypervitaminosis A down the road. 

The symptoms of this disease are dry and scaly skin, swollen eyes, sloughing, irritated nasal drainage, and weight loss. 

If you believe your pet is suffering from this condition, you should seek medical help as soon as possible. Also, you’ll need to include plenty of food rich in vitamin A in their diet. 

Parasites 

Wild-caught specimens are susceptible to parasites 9 out of 10 times, but it doesn’t mean your captive-bred turtle is immune. 

Gastrointestinal parasite is one of the most common parasites found in turtles, which cause nuisances like diarrhea and weight loss. 

If you suspect your turtle has parasites, you should have its feces assessed by a professional. As a matter of fact, a stool test should be performed as soon as you bring a pet home and every year after that. 

Infections 

Turtles will develop infections in the eyes, nose, ears, and skin if it is consistently exposed to poor living conditions. In most cases, an infection can be traced back to an unsanitary environment. 

Your pet can contract a parasitic, bacterial, or fungal infection. You’ll need to seek medical assistance once again. The doctor will run various tests to ascertain the reason behind the infection and treat it accordingly. 

Southern Painted Turtle Hibernation 

In the wild, southern painted turtles hibernate throughout the winter months. They can live submerged in ponds covered with an icy lid for more than 3 months at a time. 

However, a captive southern painted turtle may choose not to hibernate. After all, all of its needs are being met – it might find no reason to go into hibernation. 

That being said, as a responsible turtle parent, it’s your job to facilitate the hibernation process whether the pet hibernates or not. 

The first thing to do here is have the turtle assessed by a vet. Only healthy pets can hibernate. Otherwise, the chances are that they will never wake up. 

Besides that, there are a couple of things you should take in your stride, such as gradually lowering the temperature, feeding a fibrous meal, fasting the turtle, checking the body weight, and preparing the fridge for hibernation. 

If you want to learn more about how to help painted turtles hibernate, you will find this article helpful. 

Do Painted Turtles Hibernate In Captivity? 9-Step Guide To Help Your Turtle Hibernate

Breeding Southern Painted Turtles

Breeding southern painted turtles isn’t too challenging. However, the clutch size is quite small compared to other painted turtles. On top of that, it’s quite tricky to incubate the eggs, hatch them, and help them become young adults. 

Below, I’ll explain everything you need to know about breeding southern painted turtles. 

They Take To Time To Mature 

Since turtles enjoy a long lifespan, they take a good amount of time to get ready for reproduction. The males sexually mature at around 3 years of age, whereas females take up to 3-5 years. 

Differentiating Male And Female Turtles 

Male turtles are smaller and have foreclaws. Also, males have a concave or flat plastron, whereas females have convex plastron that allows space for eggs. 

We’ve already discussed the main differentiating factors between males and females above. You can have a look once again!

The Tentative Timeline 

In the wild, courtship lasts from mid-April to June. The nests are built from May to July. And the eggs hatch around late September and October. 

Your captive-bred turtle will most likely follow the same timeline. 

Making A Nest

If your turtle stays outdoors, the female will build the nest herself in a sunny spot. She will create multiple flask-shaped cavities and cover them with mud. 

 If the enclosure is kept indoors, you must make a nest for the expecting female. You can use logs, rocks, and soil to do so. Keep in mind that the nesting site should receive plenty of sunlight. 

Unique Sex Determination Process

Turtles have one of the most unique sex determination processes of all time. If the temperature is colder, most hatchlings will turn out to be males. On the other hand, if the temperature is hotter, the hatchlings will turn out to be females. 

And by the way, painted turtle eggs can reportedly survive temperatures as low as 15 degrees F (-9 degrees C). The eggs contain certain “antifreeze” matter that prevents tissue from freezing. 

Independent Right Off The Bat 

Turtles don’t make good parents. Once the eggs are laid, they leave and never return. Thus, the hatchlings are on their own from the very start. 

They are on their own to find food, water, and safety. 

Parting Words: Southern Painted Turtle Care Guide 

So, this is our last care guide on the painted turtle series. I sure had a lot of fun writing for you all, and I hope you will find this information helpful. 

Southern painted turtles are the smallest of the bunch, but that doesn’t mean they’re any less fun or any less pretty. If you have decided to bring a southern painted turtle home, congrats! You have some fine taste! 

With access to the correct information and a bit of patience, you will have a grand time raising these little reptiles. And mind you, they lead long lives! 

You’d Love These Care Guides Too!

Western Painted Turtle Care Guide

Cumberland Slider Turtle Care Guide

Midland Painted Turtle Care Guide 

Eastern Painted Turtle Care Guide

rohit gurung author at urbanfishkeeping

About Rohit Gurung

My never-ending love and fascination with Aquascaping started when I received a red-eared turtle for my 10th birthday.

Apart from researching and writing, I spend hours gazing at my 3 turtles. And yeah, I bask alongside them too.