Main Menu

The Mysteries of Painted Turtle Spots and Colors

The Mysteries of Painted Turtle Spots and Colors

Friday, October 1st at 3:15 pm
Robert C. Byrd Center for Congressional History and Education Auditorium



Yellow, orange, and red skin or feather colors are common in many animals, and these colors are often generated by carotenoid pigments. These carotenoid-based colors are involved in sexual selection (mate choice or male rivalry) because the pigments must be obtained by eating plants or animals that eat plants, and variation in an individual’s color indicate relative carotenoid foraging success and other aspects of physiological condition. Painted turtles are attractive reptiles and prized pets because of their yellow, orange, and red carotenoid-based spot and stripe colors. Painted turtles however are highly secretive and little is known about their reproductive behavior and mating system (use of colors as a trait involved mate choice or male rivalry), so indirect means must be used to infer how these colors are used by individuals. This faculty research forum presents my SU undergraduate lab’s research that describes how painted turtles change color in response to carotenoid availability, whether or not turtles actively seek out food with carotenoids, and whether or not carotenoid-based stripes and spots can function to indicate aspects of turtle health. Finally, this research presentation will present preliminary findings that investigate painted turtle mating behavior.  


John Steffen is an assistant professor at Shepherd University. He is an organismal biologist and herpetologist (i.e. reptile and amphibian biologist) who studies how skin and feather colors are used by animals to communicate information to other animals in the environment. I received my Ph.D. at Auburn University where I studied Ethology and Behavioral Ecology under the advisement of ornithologist Geoffrey Hill and tropical herpetologist Craig Guyer. My previous research investigated the use of carotenoid-colored dewlaps in species-rich, tropical, and subtropical Anolis lizards. My current research investigates the use of carotenoid-based colors in even more ancient reptiles, turtles.