Nature Encounters: Eastern Painted Turtle

"The Turtle's teachings are so beautiful. So very special. It teaches us that everything you are, everything you need and everything you bring to the world is inside you, not external, and you carry it with you, and are not limited to a place, space or time." - Eileen Anglin



I live a few hundred feet from a teardrop shaped pond, surrounded by pine and poplar trees, and one of my favorite trails to run snakes around the pond’s edge, giving me chances to pause and meet my neighbors who inhabit the pond’s cool waters. This particular morning, I was wrapping up my run around 10am, when the morning was reaching its arms out to the warm afternoon sun, and I stopped by the pond to visit my friend Nellie.



More Than Human Friends


Nellie is an Eastern Painted Turtle, a common species here in the piedmont of North Carolina. She has deep olive skin with red stripes along the edges of her shell, and she has dark, discerning eyes. She has yellow lines along her legs, neck, and face, and her shell, or carapace, is a black olive color. Her shell is divided into thirteen main sections, or scutes, and there are smaller scutes along the edges of the shell, creating a border. She is a small creature, about 6 or 7 inches long, with clawed, webbed feet. Nellie doesn’t hear very well, but her sense of smell and color vision are impeccable. Nellie is a pleasant lady, deliberate and moving at her own pace always. She has a schedule to keep each day, and she doesn’t appreciate when folks interrupt her routine. I think she’s about 8 years old, but really, Nellie doesn’t think her age is any of my business.



Excuse Me while I Bask in Sun


Nellie makes her home in the teardrop pond, a freshwater gal who likes calm, still waters. Through the spring and summer, Nellie rises with the sun and makes her way to one of her favorite sun spots. Sunbathing is as necessary as breathing for Nellie, activating her life force, energizing her limbs, and warming up her cold blood, so she can move around, swim, and mate. She’ll spend a few hours basking in the sunlight with her pals on a fallen log or rock. She might hang out in the sun all day if it suits her fancy, but she’ll probably go for a swim or two once she’s good and energized.


Every couple days, she’ll take a dip in the water between sun hours to find some grub. Nellie is an omnivore, keeping a good variety in her diet. She’ll eat plants when there’s nothing else around, but she prefers small fish, crustaceans, aquatic insects, or insect larvae. She’s partial to dragonflies or beetles if you want to swing by for lunch sometime. Nellie doesn’t understand my vegetarian ways, not when there are plenty of bugs to be found.


When the temperatures cool down and winter is knocking on the door, Nellie will retreat to the bottom of the pond. She is not interested in a day where she can’t warm herself in the sun, so she’ll spend the winter in hibernation. Her body temperature will drop significantly, and her vital organs will continue to function with minimal effort. She can survive the winter without oxygen thanks to a sugar, glycogen, that she’s been storing up in her body in preparation.



Swipe Up for Mating Season


When Nellie is warmed up and well-fed, she decides she’ll entertain a male turtle or two in courtship. Her ovulation cycle started when she woke up this spring, and now, heading into summer, it’s time to get serious about laying some eggs.


Male painted turtles are smaller with longer claws, and Nellie notices one she likes following her around in the sun. The sexual dance has begun, and the male turtle will extend his neck to smell her cloaca region to see if she’s receptive. If Nellie is, they’ll meet face to face, and he’ll stroke her face with his longer claws, vibrating them in a manner known as titillation. She’ll return the gesture in consent, and they continue flirting like this for a bit.


He'll retreat and return until Nellie is ready to go for a swim together. They’ll copulate submerged underwater, Nellie remaining still while he mounts her shell. Once the copulation is complete, they swim off in different directions, their interactions finished. She can store the sperm in her oviducts for up to 3 clutches, or groups of eggs, and the sperm will remain viable for about 3 years. This means the eggs in any clutch could be fertilized by multiple male turtles. Nellie can lay as many as 2-5 clutches a year and doesn’t need to mate frequently.



Today is the Day


I stop by the pond to visit with Nellie only to discover she’s wandering around, searching for a spot to lay her eggs. She is meandering through the woods, uphill, until she comes to an opening where the trail ends, a south facing spot with sun exposure. The soil is mostly red clay with very little rock, and since Nellie will be digging the hole by herself, this is ideal. Nellie begins by moistening the soil further with her urine. She starts digging her hole with her hind legs, alternating between each leg, grabbing small foot-fulls of dirt and pushing it to the side.


I find her as she is digging, and she immediately tucks her head in on my approach. This is an arduous task for her, and it is one Nellie usually undertakes without assistance or witnesses. I communicate that I mean no harm, I’m only here to honor her presence and process, and I want for her to consent to allow me to stay. After about a minute, Nellie peeks her head out, almost nodding, and starts moving her feet again, digging out one tiny foot full at a time. I am honored by her trust, and I am grateful for the gift of witnessing her in this vulnerable and intimate moment.


Nellie dug in the soil for about an hour, moving at her own turtle pace unabashedly, digging a hole somewhere between 5-8 inches deep. She has been sculpting the hole while she dug, creating a flask shape, so she can lay her eggs. She slowly kicks her leg, pushing, the effort barely visible on her tiny face. At the base of her tail, her cloaca expands, and an egg slides out. It drops easily into the hole she has prepared, a white, oval-shaped egg about one-inch long. She continues pushing until she lays 5 eggs! After the 5th and final egg, Nellie uses her legs to fill the hole with dirt once again, burying her eggs in the mud. She won’t return to this spot again, so she makes sure the eggs are completely covered. When she finishes, it looks as if it was never disturbed.


Nellie moves toward the pond again, completely exhausted. She walks slowly to her watery home, having expended over 50% of her available energy to lay this clutch, and she passes by without really noticing me. She’ll need to eat and bask in the sun for awhile before she can do another.



All Those Eggs in One Basket


The eggs will rest in this mother-made nest for approximately 72-90 days. Each egg will hatch when it’s ready, not all at once, so it could take several days for the whole clutch. The hatching period is usually late August-September, and if it’s too late in the year, the hatchlings will stay in their nest through the winter, emerging in spring. I’m estimating they’ll hatch between August 3-21.


Did you know the sex of the hatchlings is temperature dependent? This is called temperate-dependent sex determination (TSD), and this means as the embryos develop, the temperature of the chamber will be determinate if the hatchlings are male or female. Warmer temperatures favor females, and cooler temperatures favor males. As humans and climate change take their toll on the environment, the ratio of male & female offspring could cause a reduction in the temperature dependence or an alternation in the material nesting behavior.


Since Nellie chose a nest facing south with a lot of sun exposure, I’m guessing the hatchlings will be female. Who run the world?



Thank You Nellie!


It was such an unexpected gift to witness Nellie laying her eggs today. Nellie reminded me to slow down and be fully present in this life so I don’t miss out on the miracles around me every day. My human preoccupations keep me running from one thing to the next, and my more-than-human friends teach me to be aware, to be present, to stop and smell the roses or witness new life. Mama Earth is always there, waiting to show us the way or hold us or love us through all our human ways. I hope I can sit awhile with Nellie another day, bask in the sunshine and soak up all the love Mama Earth has to give me.


Until my next turtle time,