Rhinoclemmys pulcherrimaPainted Wood Turtle

Geographic Range

Rhinoclemmys pulcherrima is comprised of four subspecies which collectively range from Sonora, Mexico to Costa Rica. They are the only turtles of the subfamily Batagurinae to occur in the New World (Ernst and Barbour, 1989). Note: Some herpetologists consider this group of turtles as a separate family, the Bataguridae.


Rhinoclemmys pulcherrima is a terrestrial lowland species, primarily an inhabitant of scrub lands and moist woodlands, but also occurs in gallery forest close to streams. The red terrapin seems, at least in Costa Rica and Nicaragua, to prefer moist situations, and has been observed wading and swimming in streams and rain pools, especially during the dry season. (Ernst and Barbour, 1989)

Physical Description

Rhinoclemmys pulcherrima is an attractive species with thin red lines on the face and extensive areas of red and black vermiculations on the limbs, thighs, and tail as well as on the ventral parts of the marginal scutes and near the midline of the plastron. It has a small head with finely serrated jaw edges. (Pritchard, 1979) The carapace is light brown with a ridge down the middle and moderate sculpturing on the scutes. The plastron is yellowish with red markings visible on the marginals. The shell is somewhat elongated. (McCormick, 1998) Males reach a carapace length of 18 cm and have a concave plastron and a longer thicker tail, with the vent beyond the carapacial margin. Females are larger (up to 20 cm CL) with a flat plastron that is slightly upturned anteriorly, and a shorter tail with the vent beneath the carapace edge. The carapace is flatter and broader in the northern parts of the range, and domed and narrower southward. (Ernst and Barbour, 1989) One subspecies, Rhinoclemmys p. rogerbarbouri has an interesting carapace that is somewhat wedge-shaped dorsally and with straight, posteriorly diverging sides, and upturned marginal edges in some specimens. This forms a "gutter" that may serve to direct rain water towards the mouth, as has been observed with some species of tortoises. (Pritchard, 1979)


Rhinoclemmys pulcherrima lays several clutches of three to five eggs from May to December. Eggs may be buried in soil or leaf litter. The eggs are elongated and brittle-shelled. (IUCN, 1998) The eggs measure 24-32 mm x 37-52 mm. Hatchlings measure from 35 to 50 mm in carapace length. (Ernst and Barbour, 1989) This species has temperature-dependent sex determination (TSD) Pattern Ia (Ewert and Nelson, 1991). Within the temperature range suitable for incubation, eggs incubated at cooler temperatures produce mostly males, while warmer eggs produce females. At 24C to 27C all males will form. When eggs are incubated at 30C only 25% of hatchlings will be males, and above 30C only females hatch out. (Ewert and Nelson, 1991)

  • Key Reproductive Features
  • gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate)


  • Average lifespan
    Status: captivity
    20.4 years


During courtship the male may "bob" his head, and follow the female while "nosing" her tail and shell. Later in courtship the female engages the male in nose-to-nose contact and head bobbing. (Ernst and Barbour, 1989) These turtles are primarily terrestrial and can be found many kilometers away from water. They are also able to withstand drought conditions and temperatures up to 44° Celsius (IUCN, 1998)

Food Habits

Rhinoclemmys pulcherrima is omnivorous. It feeds on wildflowers, grasses, fruit (guavas, mangos, oranges), insects, worms, and fish. (Ernst and Barbour, 1989) Even though they may spend some of their time soaking in ponds or other bodies of water, they normally eat on land. (McCormick, 1998)

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Rhinoclemmys pulcherrima may serve as a biological control of agricultural (especially insect) pests (IUCN, 1998). Because Rhinoclemmys pulcherrima is so attractive (especially R. p. manni) it is often exploited for the pet trade. Unfortunately this species seldom does well in captivity and usually dies within the first year.

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

This species is harmless to human interests.

Conservation Status

Collecting (for food and the pet trade) and deforestation are the major threats to this turtle. Their natural predators include crocodiles, birds, and mammals. (IUCN, 1998)

Other Comments

Some subspecies of Rhinoclemmys pulcherrima are very bright and colorful. R.p. manni has red and yellow ocelli on the carapace and head; this pattern may resemble the colors of the venomous coral snakes and thus serve to frighten predators. (Ernst and Barbour, 1989)

The scientific name was formerly spelled Rhinoclemys and formerly called Callopsis. (Obst, 1988)


Matt Jolman (author), Michigan State University, James Harding (editor), Michigan State University.



living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

World Map


living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.

World Map

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


animals which must use heat acquired from the environment and behavioral adaptations to regulate body temperature


having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

scrub forest

scrub forests develop in areas that experience dry seasons.


1998. "Land turtles of Costa Rica" (On-line). Accessed 10/26/99 at http://www.correos.go.cr/tortugasen.html.

Ernst, B. 1989. Turtles of the world. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution press.

Ewert, M., C. Nelson. 1991. Sex Determination in Turtles. Copeia, 1991: 50-69.

McCormick, Betsy, 1998. "The Mexican Wood Turtle" (On-line). Accessed 10/25/99 at http://www.tortois.org/archives/rhino.html.

Obst, F., . Richter, U. Jacob. 1988. Illustrated Atlas of Reptiles and Amphibians. Neptune, NJ: TFH Publ. Inc..

Pritchard, P. 1979. Encyclopedia of Turtles. Neptune, NJ: TFH Publ. Inc..