Rhinoclemmys pulcherrima

(Gray, 1856)
Painted wood turtle

This is a medium-sized (to 20 cm), colorful, terrestrial turtle with a series of red or orange stripes across the snout. Its carapace is rough, owing to growth annuli, medially keeled, posteriorly serrated, notched posteriorly, and usually widest and highest just behind the middle. It is flatter and broader in the northern parts of the range and domed and narrower southward. The carapace is brown with pleurals ranging from solid brown to patterned ones with a single, dark-bordered yellow or red spot to bright yellow or red lines or ocelli. Vertebrals may be unicolored, dark flecked, or with yellow or red radiations. The well-developed plastron is notched posteriorly. Its formula is: abd > pect > fem > an > gul > hum. The plastron is yellow with a narrow to wide, dark, central blotch, and its seams may be dark bordered. The bridge is either completely brown or has a horizontal yellow bar separating the brown pigment from the carapace. A slightly projecting snout and a notched, sometimes cusped, upper jaw are present on the small head. The brown to greenish head bears a series of bright orange to red stripes: (1) a median stripe running forward between the orbits to the dorsal tip of the snout where it meets two other stripes, one from each orbit, to form a prefrontal arrow; the lateral stripes may extend through the orbit to the nape; and any of these stripes may be discontinuous; (2) a stripe running posteriorly from below the nostrils along the upper jaw to the tympanum; (3) a stripe running from each nostril to the corresponding orbit; and (4) several stripes (usually two or three) running from the orbit to the tympanum. Jaws and chin are yellow and the lower jaw and chin may contain red stripes, large black spots, or ocelli. Other skin is olive to yellow or rufous. Forelimbs are covered with large red or yellow scales with rows of black spots; the toes are slightly webbed, if at all.
Males are smaller (18 cm) with concave plastra and longer, thicker tails with the vent beyond the carapacial margin. Females are larger (20 cm) with flat plastra slightly upturned anteriorly, and shorter tails with the vent beneath the carapace.

Rhinoclemmys pulcherrima ranges from Sonora, Mexico, to Costa Rica on the Pacific versant; on the Atlantic versant, it occurs in eastern Guatemala and eastern Honduras.

Geographic Variation
Four subspecies are recognized. R. p. pulcherrima (Gray, 1856), the Guerrero wood turtle, is found in coastal Guerrero and Oaxaca, Mexico. Its carapace is low, wide, and brown with dark flecks and a single dark-bordered, red or yellow central spot on each pleural. There are two or three light bars on the ventral side of each marginal. The narrow, dark central plastral blotch may be forked on the gulars and anals, and its bridge contains a yellow and a black transverse bar. Rhinoclemmys pulcherrima rogerbarbouri (Ernst, 1978), the Western Mexican wood turtle, occurs in Mexico from southern Sonora to Colima. Its low, wide, brown carapace has no pleural markings or occasionally only a faint reddish stripe. The underside of each marginal bears a single light bar. The plastron has a wide, often faded, dark central blotch, and the bridge is brown. The incised wood turtle R. p. incisa (Bocourt, 1868) ranges from Oaxaca, Mexico, southward to northern Nicaragua. Its brown carapace is medium (in the north) to high domed (in the south) and bears dark flecks, a dark-bordered red or yellow stripe or large ocellus on each pleural, and a light bar on the ventral side of each marginal. Its dark plastral blotch is narrow and unforked, and the bridge is brown. R. p. manni (Dunn, 1930), the Central American wood turtle, is found in southern Nicaragua and northwestern Costa Rica, and is one of the most colorful of all turtles. Its high-domed brown carapace has several large red or yellow ocelli on each pleural and two light bars on the underside of each marginal. The narrow, dark, central plastral blotch may fork on the gulars and anals, and the bridge contains a yellow and a black transverse bar. Janzen (1980) has suggested the red and yellow ocelli may be a coral-snake mimicry pattern to frighten predators.

Rhinoclemmys pulcherrima is a terrestrial lowland species, and originally was probably an inhabitant of scrublands and moist woodlands, but now is common in cleared areas, especially those close to streams where it occupies gallery forest. The ornate 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. It is very active after rains. When away from water bodies, it usually seeks out moist vegetation.

Natural History
Male head bobbing is a common feature of the courtship, as also is smelling and trailing of the female. In later courtship the female engages the male in nose-to-nose contact and biting (Hidalgo, 1982). Up to four clutches of three to five eggs have been laid by a captive R. p. incisa from September through December. The elongated, brittle-shelled eggs measure 24-32 x 37-52 mm, and hatchlings range in carapace length from 35 to 50 mm.
In nature R. pulcherrima is probably an omnivore, but with stronger preferences toward plants. Wild foods have not been recorded, but captives readily eat a variety of domestic fruits and vegetables, earthworms, fish, beef strips, and canned dog food. When given a choice they usually choose plant foods over meats.

IUCN Red List Status (1996)
Not listed.