Rare green sea turtle (Chelonia Mydas), swimming in open ocean, Moalboal, Cebu, Philippines

What Color Are Turtles?

Turtles are diverse animals that are classified into over 300 species and subspecies, and most of them have a different color and a different pattern on their shell and skin. Some of those patterns can be spectacular, while others are rather plain.


Most turtles are green, dark or light brown, or brownish-gray colored, and have a huge variety of patterns on their shells, ranging from circles to stripes to hieroglyphs, which can be a multitude of colors like red, yellow, orange, black, or white.

Now let’s look at some beautiful and interesting-looking turtles, and after that, we’ll have a look at some turtles that change their color, and the reason for all this diversity.

The Different Colors of Turtles

The Sabine Map Turtle (Graptemys pseudogeographica sabinensis)

The Southern Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta dorsalis)

The Northern Diamondback Terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin terrapin)

As you can see, there is a huge variety of colors among turtle species, even if the main color is usually a dark green or a muddy green. The overall color of a turtle is determined by the environment in which it lives. Darker-colored turtles usually live in areas with dense vegetation, while lighter-colored turtles live in areas with lighter vegetation.

The Gulf Coast Spiny Softshell Turtle (Apalone spinifera aspera)

The Ornate Box Turtle (Terrapene ornata)

The Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina)

In a lot of cases, like with box turtles, the only way to differentiate between species is the color and the pattern, as there is no other biological difference between them. Turtles have migrated over time and now overlap, despite the fact that their differences in color and pattern are due to the environment in which they live. And now the only difference between them is the color.

The Hieroglyphic River Cooter (Pseudemys concinna hieroglyphica)

Alligator Snapping Turtle (Macroclemys temminckii)

Cagle’s Map Turtle (Graptemys caglei)

But while there are some very interesting looking turtles out there, most of them are rather plain-looking. Here are some of the most common colors you will see on a turtle:

The Common Musk Turtle (Sternotherus odoratus)

The Desert Tortoise (Gopherus agassizii)

The Northwestern Pond Turtle (Emys marmorata)

Can Turtles Change Color?

A surprising number of turtles will change color over time.

The most dramatic color change occurs in painted terrapins that live in Malaysia, Sumatra, and Borneo. The painter terrapins usually have a nondescript gray head and some dull red stripes down the center of the top of their heads.

During the mating season, the heads of the males become white, and the dull red of the stripes becomes a very bright and powerful red. This change helps them find a partner during the mating season, no other benefit of the color change has been found.

The male river terrapins also change colors during the mating season. Their shells are usually a pale gray that goes unnoticed, but during the mating season, their shells become darker, almost black. Again, there is no other practical reason for this change, except to attract partners.


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