Turtle Crossing

It’s hard to believe that it’s already the middle of June, but signs of summer are everywhere! Mulberries are putting out their berries, early flowers are going to seed, and at every pond around River Bend, female turtles have been leaving the safety of the water to make the long trek through woods and fields in order to lay their eggs. Unfortunately, sometimes, these treks become even more dangerous because of the presence of humans. While it’s not unusual to find turtles walking far from the nearest source of water during laying season, as human activity increases it’s becoming far more common for turtles to walk further than average. Pollution, lack of food, habitat destruction, among other stresses, all contribute to driving turtles of all species to travel far to find nesting sites.

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A large snapping turtle crosses Rustad Road. Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

At River Bend, the species most frequently encountered are painted turtles and snapping turtles. While at the nature center, you’re most likely to encounter a nesting turtle of either of these species as she moves from the water to the nesting site as this will often require her to cross roads and other paths. This can be extremely dangerous as not all drivers will see the turtles in time to stop, and turtles are not fast enough to get out of the way. This results in countless fatalities every year across the state, and may also be contributing to the decline of several species. Unlike deer, raccoon, or other animals frequently hit along roads, turtles do not rear their young or protect them in any way, and thus hatchlings have a very high mortality rate. Because of this, even the death of one adult individual can be catastrophic for the species as a whole.

That’s great, but how can I help?

The best way we can help turtles is by being aware. Many road collisions can be prevented if drivers maintain the posted speed limits and remain aware of their surroundings. Drivers should stop if safe to do so when a turtle is in front of their vehicle, but should avoid swerving violently or any other action that may prove dangerous to others in the area.

A turtle is walking across the road. What should I do?

As stated above, if driving a vehicle, stop if safe to do so, and if time and traffic allows, allow the turtle to complete its journey on its own. Alert other drivers of the crossing turtle as well. If you’re on foot, or if you do not believe the turtle will be able to safely cross on its own, the turtle may be carried across to safety, but several factors should be kept in mind:

  1. Follow the line of travel. Always carry a turtle in a straight line in the direction it was originally traveling. If you place a turtle on the wrong side, she will merely turn around and cross the road again. Place the turtle off the road, but no further. While it may be tempting to bring the turtle to the nearest body of water, it’s bet to let instinct take the turtle to where it needs to be, rather than interfering.
  2. Handling with care. Turtles should be lifted carefully by the sides of the shell (never by the tail or a foot!). The only exception is with snapping turtles and softshell turtles—both these species have a reputation for biting without excessive provocation, and their bites can be very strong. If you encounter one of these species, call River Bend staff for assistance. After handling any reptile, be sure to wash your hands with soap and water, all reptiles have the potential to carry salmonella.
  3. Document your find. Help scientists by recording crossing and mortality areas by participating in the Minnesota Turtle Crossing Tally & Count Project: http://www.herpmapper.org/content/pdf/mn-turtles-and-roads-project.pdf

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Parking lots can be a daunting cross for even the largest turtles. Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

I want to help a turtle across the road, but I don’t think it’s a painted turtle or a snapping turtle.

Minnesota is home to eight species of turtle, two of which are quite rare: the blanding’s turtle, and the wood turtle. These two species are terrestrial, and spent their lives out of the water. They are both listed as protected throughout Minnesota, and therefore it is illegal to handle or possess either without special permitting. If you do not recognize the species, call for River Bend staff assistance to have the turtle identified.

I think I found a turtle nest.

It’s not uncommon to find turtle nests, though they’re most often discovered after the hatchlings have already left, as their will be a sizeable hole in the ground with remnants of eggshells. If, however, you have found a nest (either having witnessed the female laying, or by other means) the most important thing to do is leave it alone. Do NOT attempt to relocate the eggs or stop the female from laying. If the nest is in a location that appears unsafe on River Bend property, contact River Bend staff for assistance. If the nest is on your property or elsewhere, the DNR may be contacted to help guide you through what to do.

I want to keep and observe the nest.

If on your own property, a turtle nest can be an exciting opportunity for observation. However, turtle nests are often subject to predation by mink, raccoons, and other scavengers, and these animals are often attracted by the scent of humans. Do not excessively visit the nest. Instead, place a motion sensitive camera or view from a distance. If you’re concerned about predation, wire fencing can be placed around and over the nesting site to keep other animals out, but be sure to check back frequently in order to let the baby turtles out when the time comes.

IMG_20170612_124123Some species have already hatched–such as this nest discovered earlier last week.
Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

Interested in learning more about the turtles of River Bend and Minnesota? Stop by our interpretive Center Saturday, July 8th for an Animal Ambassadors program and a chance to meet our turtles up close and personal. More information can be found on our website at http://www.rbnc.org/ .

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