One of the first things I learned about western painted turtles is that the patterns on their plastrons (a.k.a their lil’ bellies) are unique. The patterns are like our finger prints, no two are exactly the same. They are so unique that we here at the Fraser Valley Wetlands Wildlife Recovery Program use plastron photos to identify each individual turtle when it’s time to take body measurements, weigh them or microchip them.

Once a month we ID, weight and sort each turtle to make sure that like-sizes are kept together. In the span of two hours we identify about 250 turtles and let me tell you: they all start to look the same.The first time I did this I joked it was like those ink blot tests (Rorschach tests) where a psychologist shows their biologist  ̶  I mean clients – ink blot paintings and gauge their reactions to suss out personality and emotional functioning. It turns out identifying turtles is a lot like that. Who knew staring at turtle bellies could be a pathway to connecting to your inner emotional state.

When the bellies start to blend together, I try to categorize the patterns. There are “dog ears,” “spiky crown,” “blobby blobbs,” “thumbs up Fonz” just to name a few. Sometimes I look for turtles with “dog ears   ̶   thumbs up Fonz   ̶   creepy Joker-like smiley face.” The combinations are endless. I find it helpful for identifying turtles more quickly, especially if there are turtles missing from the records and I have to go back into the databases to find it. This can mean comparing a turtle to a couple hundred photos, rather than just twenty from one group.

Their unique plastrons are one of the things that makes western painted turtles so cool. I’m proud to be part of the headstarting program because I believe in the importance of conserving native species. The coastal population of western painted turtles in endangered. I grew up primarily in British Columbia and I want to see its natural beauty conserved for future generations to enjoy. The western painted turtle is an important part of our province’s ecology and they’re worth our adoration, especially when a natural part of their anatomy looks like a painting created just for them!

Variations on “dog ears.” I would say the left one is “grumpy bull dog face,” the middle is “happy bull dog face with right sea turtle fin,” and the right image is “super angry bulldog face” because of the obvious jowls and glare.