Is this Midland Painted Turtle Injured or just Shedding Scutes?

Every summer on a lake near Sharbot Lake, Ontario, my family and I count Blanding, Map, Painted and Snapping turtles and report our findings to Turtle Tally. This year, though, I saw one that made me worried. From a distance its shell seemed jagged and cracked all over. Had it been hit by a car? Was it doomed? Or was it just growing up?

Caution: Turtles Crossing
Each year, hundreds of turtles are injured and killed by cars. Often they are female turtles crossing roads to reach sandy shoreline soil where they can dig their nests and lay their eggs. According to a Brock University blog news item, there are an estimated 700 turtle crossing signs on municipal roads to try to alert drivers. There are also rehabilitation programs for injured turtles, such as the Kawartha Turtle Trauma Centre. (see their website at )

Photo of Midland Painted Turtles Sunning

So when I saw the strange look of the shell of this particular Painted turtle, my heart sank a bit. Was it a victim that was trying to heal? The murky water filled with bacteria and leeches that merely annoy a healthy turtle could be deadly to a damaged one.

We never approach the turtles closely for three reasons. First, they like to sun on dead logs and stumps in an area of extremely shallow water. It’s too shallow to canoe there. Second, they pick the logs that are too difficult to approach because of other logs and snags. And third, it’s not fair to the turtles. They need to sun for their health. Making them slide back into the cooler water is depriving them of time they need to spend improving their health. We can enjoy seeing them with binoculars and a zoom-lens camera and they keep an eye on us, but stay sunning.

Today was the first time I wondered whether we could get close enough to capture a turtle. If that one really was damaged, should we try to get it to a vet? But I could see even if we wanted to, there was no way to approach it, much less catch it.

The Crackle of a Growing Girl
As we paddled back to the cottage, I felt a faint hope stirring. Perhaps it wasn’t injured.

Once back, I booted up the computer to look at the photos on the large screen. Zooming in, I was able to see much more detail. It looked like there was healthy strong shell underneath the jagged bits.

Photo of a Midland Painted Turtle Shedding Scutes

I’d read before that growing turtles shed their scutes, just like snakes shed their skins. I’d always assumed, for some reason, that one scute at a time would shed a thin layer. I had a mental image of a fine layer of mica peeling off.

But what if my imagination was wrong? What if a growing girl could shed from several scutes at once? And what if the shed tissue was actually stiff and thick?

Seeking Expert Opinion
I tidied up a photo and emailed it to the Toronto Zoo. They supervise an excellent program called Turtle Tally to try to collect information on turtles across Ontario. I asked their opinion about the turtle.

Julia Phillips, the Adopt-A-Pond Coordinator, responded very quickly with good news:

“Turtles shed their scutes regularly throughout the summer as they grow from the energy they’ve absorbed through food and the sun. The bone of the shell pushes up from the inside out so that the keratin plates (the same material our fingernails are made of) covering the bone on each scute flake off.”

It was great to know the turtle was fine, and interesting to have learned something new.

Join In
Have you ever saved a turtle crossing a road by moving it safely to the other side? Or have you rescued a turtle? Please share your experiences by adding a comment.

2 thoughts on “Is this Midland Painted Turtle Injured or just Shedding Scutes?

  1. And what happens if you have one as a pet that is having trouble shedding her scutes? I don’t force them off but they are all over.

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