Why Did the Turtle Cross the Road?

So, why did the turtle cross the road? To get to the Shell Station, of course!

O.k., really…what makes a turtle, or any other critter for that matter, attempt such a feat as crossing a busy local road or even a 6 lane interstate highway? Regardless of what we may think it is not because the animal kingdom is secretly conspiring to inconvenience the human race.  In the case of the turtle it has had over 230 million years to hone its survival instinct which can best be described as conditioning for preservation of the species. Through adaptive evolution the female turtle has been programmed to leave the watery environment where she spends most of her life and seek out the best upland areas with sandy or gravelly soil  (including my butterfly garden and various locations within my back yard) where she is most likely to successfully produce the next generation of turtles.

This painted turtle ((Chrysemys picta) visited my yard today to dig her nest and lay her eggs

This is problematic for all turtles when their nesting habitats, which typically consist of open, sandy, well-drained upland, are bisected from their watery environs (which, again, varies from species to species) by a road or other manmade impediment. A related phenomenon which causes mortality occurs where causeway construction, or road maintenance, has created sandy open areas suitable for nesting habitat immediately adjacent to the road shoulder or in the case of J.F.K Airport in between runways. In this instance, turtles are often killed after incidentally ending up on the road surface while scouting for a preferable nest site. In the summer of 2011  runway 4L was closed due the spawning migration of the diamondback terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin).

Eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina) crossing a road.

Journalist Natalie Angier in a 2006 NYT science article states that in man-kind “this Mesozoic era creature may have at last met it’s mortician.” Most experts agree the cause of world-wide declines in turtle populations includes habitat loss, either by outright conversion or indirect fragmentation (can’t get there from here) and a high rate of decline from road mortality and harvest for importation to the Far East as a gourmet delicacy and for traditional medicinal purposes. Basically the slow and steady reproductive pace of turtles, some which may not be physically capable of producing offspring for 40 or 50 years, just cannot keep up with the high rate of adult mortality.

Research indicates that unlike all other animals studied, the organs of turtles do not age or become less efficient over time. Even after a century and a half the vital organs are indistinguishable from that of a juvenile. Researchers have even gone so far as to say that a turtle may live indefinitely (if not lost to disease or trauma). How ironic it would be if humankind, having spent its entire existence on earth seeking immortality, were to destroy the one thing it has always sought due to a selfish lack of consideration for another living organism?

Eastern snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina). Photograph by Paul Sattler

So PLEASE watch out for mother turtles crossing the road as they are now seeking out higher ground to lay their eggs. Please avoid hitting them and if possible, help the turtle cross the road. BUT REMEMBER to always move the turtles in the direction that they were originally heading. If they are moved back to the side from which they were crossing they will just try to cross the road again.

Also, once the eggs hatch in the late-summer to early fall, be on the look out for baby turtles crossing the road to go back to the wetlands and ponds.

Juvenile Painted turtle found on April 14, 2012 desiccating on a roadway in Chelmsford MA

Following 30 minutes of rest in a shallow bucket of water the little turtle was ready for its trip to the nearby pond

One hotspot in Chelmsford to be aware of is the crossing at Smith Street right before the Steadman Street intersection. Unfortunately the Turtle Crossing signs that the Chelmsford Conservation Commission had placed here didn’t make it through their first summer thanks to vandals.

Vandals removed the Turtle Crossing sign off of Smith Street in Chelmsford MA last summer.

So remember,”and the turtles of course…all the turtles are free, As turtles and maybe all creatures should be.  Dr Seuss from Yurtle the Turtle.

6 thoughts on “Why Did the Turtle Cross the Road?

  1. I don’t know where my comment went..I know this is a problem and while snappers are not on my happy list right now having watched 2 young waterfowl being dragged under to be eaten in the last couple of days..we do rescue turtles out of the road ..carefully or young ones when we see them..Michelle

    • Don’t know, switching carriers & things have been whacky. I agree it is hard to see mother nature when she can be so cruel. I just keep telling myself that the web of life is all about balance but sometimes bringing things back where they belong can seem cruel.

  2. the juvenile painted turtle is adorable!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!I can’t believe some 1 would want 2 kill it!!!!!!!!

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