In western painted turtles (Chrysemys picta bellii), males often exhibit one of two morphs: (1) a reticulated form, characterized by an intricate network of dark markings on the carapace or (2) a non-reticulated form. Although several hypotheses have been proposed to explain the adaptive significance of reticulate melanism (RM) on western painted turtles, no attempts have been made to document whether RM is linked to habitat conditions or if the presence of melanism affects heating rates. To evaluate these questions, we compared the frequency of adult male turtles with RM across three different habitats: riverine (rivers), lacustrine (lakes) and palustrine (wetland) habitats. Using manipulative experiments, we also tested the hypothesis that body heating rates are higher in turtles with RM. Reticulate melanism occurred on 99 (31%) of 320 male turtles captured in South Dakota from 2002 to 2003. Turtles with reticulate melanism were significantly larger than non-reticulated turtles; RM was not observed on male turtles with carapace lengths <15 cm or weights <360 g. The mean proportion of adult male turtles (>15 cm carapace length) with RM was similar among river (0.54), lake (0.50) and wetland (0.64) habitats, implying that RM is not a habitat-linked trait. Heating rates for turtles with RM were similar to those measured for non-reticulated individuals. Body size, however, influenced heating rates; larger-bodied turtles with lower surface area-to-volume ratio heated more slowly than smaller turtles. Whether RM is a by-product of hormonal regulation or serves an adaptive purpose remains unclear. However, other hypotheses, especially those involving communication (e.g., courtship behavior) and/or gamete protection remain untested for western painted turtles and warrant further investigation.
Additional publication details
Reticulate melanism in western painted turtles (Chrysemys picta bellii): Exploring linkages with habitat and heating rates