Turtles: Give ‘em a brake, not a break!

turtle crossing road
During their quest for the perfect location to lay their eggs, turtles will inevitably find themselves crossing a road or two. (Tami Gingrich photo)

It’s not surprising that animal rehabilitators receive an influx of turtles into their care this time of year. These turtles are delivered in a variety of conditions. Some are completely mangled, their entrails hanging out, yet still alive, while others sport horrendous cracks in their smashed shells. Thankfully, these caregivers are able to provide these reptiles a gift by tenderly ending their suffering or by skillfully repairing their shells and their spirits — a task which can take months or even years.

So, why all the turtle casualties right now?

Crossing roads

snapper crossing road
As turtles cross roads, their dark, domed shells stand out like a sore thumb against the lighter surfaces. (Tami Gingrich photo)

Turtles can be divided into two groups, those that are aquatic and those that are terrestrial. These land dwellers are referred to as tortoises. A short time after mating occurs in the spring, females set out, leaving the safety of their ponds or woodlands in search of the ideal spot in which to deposit their eggs. Although the required conditions vary with each species, locations must provide the precise temperatures and moisture content that will allow the eggs to successfully incubate. Unfortunately, during their quest for that perfect location, turtles will inevitably find themselves crossing a road or two.

I will never forget the day when I pulled over on a not-so-busy road to aid a female painted turtle to safety. As I exited my vehicle, a car appeared, and I decided to await its passing before making my rescue. As it whizzed by, I heard a nauseating popping noise and saw blood squirt in all directions as the poor turtle was deftly flattened, apparently, to the driver’s delight. So much did this event sicken me, that for a while, I couldn’t even bear to think about turtles.

As turtles cross roads, their dark, domed shells stand out like a sore thumb against the lighter pavement. It’s hard to believe that any alert driver would fail to notice them. Even if they were perceived as a rock, why would you want to hit that? I have been behind drivers that have made a concerted effort to swerve, even across the center line, in order to run over a turtle. My mind can barely comprehend what kind of morals these people have, not to mention their regard for life.

Depositing eggs

snapper laying eggs
When a female turtle finally pinpoints an ideal location to lay her eggs, she begins digging a hole with her back feet. Eventually, she will deposit a specific number of uniquely-shaped eggs. The turtle in the photo is a snapping turtle. (Tami Gingrich photo)

When a female turtle finally pinpoints the ideal location in which she has been searching, she begins the slow, arduous task of excavating a hole. This is accomplished using her back feet which are adorned with a set of sharp claws. As she diligently digs into the soil, she scoops out the loosened dirt, regularly checking the hole’s depth. Finally, egg laying commences, each female depositing a characteristic number of uniquely shaped eggs for its species. Once complete, the clutch is gently covered and the hole patted down. These eggs, now completely on their own, may hatch in just a few months, or the hatchlings may await the following spring before digging out. Their task complete, the female turtles, following their internal compass, begin the return trip to their home turf, having once again to navigate any roads in their path.

hatchling snappers
Eggs may hatch in just a few months or the hatchlings may await the following spring before digging out. In this picture, Tami Gingrich holds snapping turtle hatchlings. (Tami Gingrich photo)

Helping turtles cross the road. I regularly aid turtles in their road crossings this time of year. You can too. Always remember that your safety is first and foremost. Please, don’t venture out onto busy highways!

Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind when relocating a turtle off the road is the direction in which it is traveling. A turtle is moving in the direction that it is moving for a reason. Either it is on its way to its egg-laying grounds or returning to its home. Therefore, always move a turtle in the direction that it is facing. Moving it back to where it just came from will result in yet another, unnecessary road crossing. Whether it’s a small musk turtle or a behemoth snapper, all turtles are important, and whether you like them or not, all are a part of nature’s intricate web and deserve a chance to navigate this earth alongside of us.

Painted turtles
Painted turtles bask in the sun atop a log. (Tami Gingrich photo)

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