Speaking of Nature: The eastern painted turtle, the sunbather on a log

  • Covered with yellows, oranges and reds, the eastern painted turtle is the most colorful of our native reptiles and has a name that makes a lot of sense. BILL DANIELSON

Published: 7/5/2022 3:27:36 PM
Modified: 7/5/2022 3:24:58 PM

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, happy Fourth of July! By now I think many of us have made that transition from the “school year” to the summer. I know that I am enjoying the change of pace very much and to celebrate the arrival of a new month and the first holiday of the summer, I have decided to take a break from birds and give a little attention to another taxonomic group — the reptiles.

Given that the fireworks that we will be enjoying tonight (assuming the weather cooperates) are so wonderfully colorful, I thought that I might look for some color in the world of the reptiles. These animals tend to be rather drab in their coloration, with dark browns, greys and blacks dominating the costumes of virtually all species, but there is one exception to this rule. Covered in yellows, oranges and reds that add gorgeous highlights to the dark greys and blacks, I present you with the eastern painted turtle (Chrysemyspicta).

A denizen of any calm water environment, the eastern painted turtle is the iconic sunbather on a log. This is undoubtedly where most humans make a sighting of the animal because a turtle in water is far more difficult to locate. The small head can be raised up out of the water like a periscope on a submarine and this gives the turtle ample opportunity to survey its surroundings and determine if there are any threats. However, a turtle that does this is basically at the surface and is easily seen by any predators looking down from the air. This makes the red-shouldered hawk a potential predator of the eastern painted turtle.

Turtles are not dinosaurs, but they evolved at about the same time. Back in the Triassic Period, which spanned from 250 million to 200 million years ago, the greatest mass extinction that the world has yet experienced had just come to a close. The surviving organisms found themselves on a huge supercontinent we have named Pangea and the world was largely empty and waiting for recolonization by whomever could figure it out. Turtles, crocodilians, the first dinosaurs and the first mammals were all included in the group of winners.

The feature of all turtles that makes the group unique is their shell. The top of the shell (called the carapace) and the bottom of the shell (called the plastron) can best be imagined as a highly specialized ribcage of bones that have flattened out and fused like the bones of your skull. To any scientists in today’s audience I have to provide the caveat that this is a gross oversimplification, but limited space demands that I am economic with my description here. There is far more going on, but if you were to look inside the empty shell of an eastern painted turtle you could see that the backbone is fused into the “ceiling” of the carapace.

The painted turtle is just about as aquatic as you can get, but the fact that the animal is a reptile does mean that the necessity to breathe air is ever present. Because turtles are cold-blooded, they have a metabolism that varies with their temperature. Your typical turtle can dive underwater for about five minutes before surfacing for a breath. In an emergency this dive time can be extended to almost an hour and during the winter a turtle can essentially “hold its breath” for months at a time.

Turtles will come out of the water when they get cold and this is where the rocks and fallen logs of their pond, lake and river habitats prove to be exceptionally valuable. A pond with just a few such objects may see large numbers of turtles quarreling over prime sunning spots. The other reasons that turtles come out of the water are reproduction and exploration.

Female turtles have to find areas with soft, sandy soils where they can lay their eggs. Since the turtles cannot warm their own eggs, the eggs are buried in the soil and the females then retreat back to the water. This cool-incubation requires 70-80 days to complete and the tiny, quarter-sized hatchlings will emerge in late August and September. This means that June and July are prime egg-laying time for the painted turtle and it may be that you have already seen a female turtle crossing a road in search of a place to lay eggs. So if you know that you are approaching a roadside pond while out driving, consider taking your foot off the gas and scanning the road for these little animals at their most vulnerable moments.

Well, that’s it for another week. I hope you have a wonderful holiday and I hope you can avoid hitting any turtles as they cross roads. Also, I think that we can all answer that famous question, “Which came first? The chicken or the egg?” quite easily. Turtles were laying eggs long before there even was such a thing as a chicken. Science is cool!

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 25 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy and the Massachusetts State Parks and he currently teaches high school biology and physics. For more in formation visit his website at www.speakingofnature.com, or head over to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.

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