PAINTED TURTLES HAVE MANY MEANINGS

by Whit Gibbons

August 28, 2016

I read a Miami Herald article about a new form of graffiti - painting wild gopher tortoises, native land turtles that get bigger than volleyballs. The article referred to a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission report about recovering gopher tortoises with their shell entirely covered in colorful paint.

My guess is that the perpetrators meant no harm, but this form of environmental vandalism is unacceptable. In Florida, according to the FFWCC, "It is against the law to ... harass ... gopher tortoises." A tortoise having its shell painted as part of a whimsical art project would indeed feel harassed.

The FFWCC has reason for concern. Any turtle with paint all over its shell loses its camouflage potential, both on land and in water. Also, toxic ingredients might be absorbed or the reptile may lose its ability to regulate its temperature properly.

Some may remember the abomination of baby turtles being sold with palm trees, flowers and other images painted on their shells before it became illegal to sell small turtles in 1975. Most of these almost certainly died.

On the other hand, painting turtles has been an ecological research technique for decades. I painted my first turtle in Michigan in 1964 during a scientific study on turtle populations. The animal was a common painted turtle, one of the most widespread and abundant turtles in the country. They get their name from the beautiful yellow and red stripes on the legs and head and the bright red markings on the margin of the shell. I added to this one's natural splendor with three letters, AEG, painted with white enamel on the shiny black shell.

When I released AEG into the clear water of the lake, I could still read the ID when the turtle finally disappeared into the bottom muck 4 feet below. I subsequently identified this turtle and several others with different paint IDs later in the year. I was even able to use binoculars and read the ID on basking turtles more than 100 feet away. Thus, a simple coding system allowed me to determine the whereabouts of turtles I had captured in the study area without having to recapture them.

Painting small inconspicuous marks on animals for identification continues to be used by many research ecologists. Having a number painted on it for ready identification is unlikely to be a problem for most adult turtles. Any small risk to survival from a bit of paint is often outweighed by the value of finding out more about the natural history of turtles.

My grandsons and I put small numbers on slider turtles and box turtles we catch so that we know when we catch the same one again. But rather than carry a paint can and brush, we use nontoxic paint pens available at most hardware stores.

Fingernail polish is also a simple way to give a turtle an ID. Sharpies and black magic markers also work for temporarily marking turtles that are light-colored underneath. Finding a turtle and recognizing it the next time you catch it can be a gratifying experience, especially for kids.

Painted turtles in Michigan do not retain the numbers because in the fall they shed thin, cuticle-like plates called scutes that cover the bony shell. Scutes with numbers on them are jettisoned along with the rest. All turtles, including gopher tortoises, shed the plates on their shell, although they and many other turtles do not do so on such a regular basis. But presumably the tortoises in Florida that have become funky art palettes will eventually return to their natural coloration - if they live long enough.

I doubt that painting the shells of tortoises or other turtles will become an American pastime that warrants attention as a major wildlife agency problem. However, painting small numbers on a turtle's shell for a research project or simply to know if you find it again can be a rewarding exercise.

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