Water Turtles Identification Help

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picture of a Painted Turtle

Members of the family Emydidae, the native water turtles, inhabit freshwater environment across North America. Depending on the source, used, up to ten separate genera with common names such as box turtles, sliders and painted turtles, have been documented.

Geography determines the ranges for most fresh water species. The Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta) in the top picture bucks the general trend. Four Painted Turtle subspecies have been documented, making it the widest ranging of all the fresh water turtle species.

All turtle identification guides emphasize the fact that colorful facial and neck patterns often serve as good field identification clues for fresh water turtles, especially in areas with above average turtle diversity. This section provides pictures and general information covering species from most of the fresh water turtle genera.

Box Turtles

picture of an Eastern Box Turtle

North America hosts two native box turtle species, the Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina) and the Western Box Turtle (Terrapene ornata).

Four subspecies of the Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina) inhabit the forest floors, swamps and grassy areas of the Eastern United States:

  • Eastern Box Turtles (Terrapene carolina carolina) exhibits the widest range, extending from Southern New England, south to the Florida state line and west into Indiana, southern Illinois, Kentucky and Tennessee.
  • The Three-Toed Box Turtles (Terrapene carolina triunguis) ranges through the South Central United States.
  • The range of the Florida Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina bauri) is limited to the peninsula area.

Two subspecies of the Western Box Turtle (Terrapene ornata), also known as the Ornate Box turtle, inhabit dry and sandy habitats in their range.

The more common subspecies, the Ornate Box Turtle (Terrapene ornata ornata), inhabits the grasslands of the central United States from South Dakota, south through Texas. The Desert Box Turtle inhabits the grassland areas of the Desert Southwest regions, south to northern Mexico.


picture of a Diamondback Terrapin

Seven different Diamondback Terrapin subspecies (Malaclemys terrapin) represent the Emydidae family, although they present a variation on the Emydidae freshwater preference theme by inhabiting transition zones between the freshwater rivers and salt water oceans of the East Coast and Gulf of Mexico.

Although none of the subspecies grows larger than a foot in length, their shell appearance differs from location to location. Additionally, all of the subspecies share the physical characteristic of having a white face with dark markings.

More Water Turtles

picture of a western pond turtle

The Western Pond Turtle (Clemmys marmorata), a western species, is listed as endangered in Washington State, with habitat loss cited as a causal factor.

picture of a Yellow-bellied Slider turtle

The yellow-bellied slider, (Trachemys scripta scripta), a relative of the more common Red-headed Slider, inhabits slow moving water bodies like ponds and lakes of the South.

picture of a Peninsula Cooter turtle

Cooters are the larger than average river turtles common in many areas of the eastern United States. The Peninsula Cooter (Pseudemys peninsularis), also known as the Florida River Cooter, lives in slow flowing rivers and streams from Virginia, south through Florida. They feed primarily of local plant life. The picture shows a specimen with a colorful green and yellow patterned shell.

picture of a bog turtle

Size along with a patch of yellow or orange color on the side of the neck represent the basic field identification clues for the Bog turtle. An eastern turtle family, adults often measure less than five inches in length. They live year round in their locations and tend to hibernate for approximately half the year.

picture of an Eastern Chicken Turtle

Eastern Chicken Turtle (Deirochelys reticulara), common in the Southeast,

picture of a Blanding's Turtle

Blanding’s Turtle (Chtysemys picta)