Basking Turtles of the Piedmont

Take any given sunny day and almost any available hard surface sticking out of still water will be covered with a mix of turtles, basking the afternoon away. As a group, they are all family Emydidae, the basking or pond turtles.

Emydidea all have a similar life history. They range in size from teeny weeny (everyone starts small) to over a foot across the carapace. Mostly dark and covered in mud or slime, some have brightly colored bits on their heads and sides that allow you to distinguish between the species. They spend most of their time basking, dislike fast water, swim quite well, and are only seen on land when they’re laying or traveling between pond sites. Emydids eat the standard “anything I can stick in my mouth” of turtles. They have a life expectancy greater than a horse but less than a human. Females are often larger than males, and males have a curved plastron and long front claws used for flirting.

In the Piedmont, here’s what you may see:

  • Chrysemys picta picta, Eastern Painted Turtle
  • Clemmys buttata, Spotted Turtle
  • Pseudemys concinna concinna, Eastern River Cooter
  • Trachemys scripta scripta, Yellowbelly Slider

Notice that each of these has “emys” in the genus name; emys in latin is any small pond turtle. Which these are.

Identifying Basking Turtles in North Carolina

Let’s start from smallest to largest.

Spotted turtle
Spotted turtle, complete with some nice spots

Spotted Turtles, Clemmys buttata

Spotteds are the smallest of the basking turtles. They are dark, roundish, and look like someone flicked paint on them. The spots are not uniformly distributed. They are not particularly common, so you should be excited if you see one.

Eastern Painted Turtle
Painted Turtle. Red and white both. Very complicated painting, isn’t it? Greg Schechter [CC BY (]

Eastern Painted Turtles, Chrysemys picta picta

Painteds are small, say the size of grapefruit. Only a smashed grapefruit. The standard turtle coloring is enhanced with red swirls on the carapace, red stripes on the legs, neck and tail, and white spots on the head. You can think this painted turtles need two paint brushes, one for red stripes and swirls on the body, legs and neck, and one for white spots and stripes on the head. That’s a lot to painting.

Three Yellowbelly Sliders
Two in front are yellow belies. Single head is a red ear. See the yellow belly and yellow neck stripes?

Yellowbelly Sliders, Trachemys scripta scripta

Yellowbellies have yellow bellies (duh) and prominent yellow stripes on the head. No spots on the head. Stripes. Sometimes these stripes can be very thick and run directly from the eyes down towards the neck. There is an issue with this one interbreeding with red eared sliders released from the pet trade. The interspecies can have thinner yellow eye stripes and possibly a bit of a red splotch behind the eye. The carapace is mottled, without a clear and definite pattern. So, yellow paint brush to the head, yellow paint roller to the tummy.

You can make a case for it being more orange than yellow, but never argue colors with anyone.

Eastern River Cooter
An eastern river cooter, tired from laying. See the concentric rings?

Eastern River Cooters, Pseudemys concinna concinna

The local kind of cooter have distinctive reddish concentric rings on their carapace. Cooter = concinna=concentric may help solidify the id in your brain. Think of a river’s turbulence , or complex eddies. Something like that. These are the largest of the basking turtles, up to the size of a melon, maybe a cantaloupe.

Quick Identification of Emydidae

In closing, here’s your cheat sheet for id’ing basking turtles:

  • River Cooters have concentric rings
  • Yellowbellies have yellow bellies and yellow eye stripes
  • Painted turtles take multiple paint brushes
  • Spotted turtles have spots

Cooters and yellowbellies look mighty similar when they’re older. The patterns become less distinct as they age, they can be hard to distinguish, especially from a distance, so don’t be too picky about your identification unless you have one in hand.

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