written by: Kelley V Phillips, Outreach Coordinator
Why did the turtle cross the road?
If the first answer that comes to mind is, “to get to the other side,” you are correct. But now that we are well into turtle-crossing season, it’s important to know the truth behind that punchline.
Getting hit by cars is a common cause of death for turtles. These reptiles have been around for two billion years. They coexisted with dinosaurs longer than they have had to deal with vehicles. Instinctively, turtles have no concept of the speeding metal boxes on wheels that we have built our lives around.
Why you may see turtles
There’s little mystery as to why turtles brave the pavement. If it’s a male turtle, they could be looking for a mate. These amorous boys move from pond to pond searching for as many females to mate with as possible. Since ponds, wetlands and rivers are often divided by roads, this could mean several crossings.
Female turtles could be searching for just the right place to lay eggs. In the spring and summer, they look for loose, moist soil or leaf litter in direct sunlight to dig a nest. After their eggs are laid, female turtles return to their home range. That’s a round-trip road crossing!
Or, as turtle habitats shrink and no longer provide vital food and shelter needs, turtles move to new habitats.
What to do if you see a turtle on the road
If you see a turtle on the road, the first thing you should consider is stopping your car. You don’t need an, “I brake for turtles” bumper sticker to do it. Once you’ve come to a full stop and made sure the road is safe for you to leave the car, there are a few options.
First, see if the turtle will cross on its own. They may move slowly, but they do move. If you feel it is necessary to get them off the road faster, hold them firmly on both sides of the shell and lift slowly. Flipping, swinging or twisting these critters can painfully pull on their organs.
Some turtles, like the snapping turtle, are defensive and quick to bite. Take caution and use a blunt object to gently nudge them across. For all turtles, never lift them by the tail! That can separate bones and be deadly.
If you are helping a turtle cross, move it in the direction it was going. Putting it back will likely mean it will try to cross again.
Relocating turtles to the other side of the road is enough. Bringing them to a different habitat is not healthy. Many turtles, like the Eastern Box Turtle, do not travel more than a few acres from where they were born. If they are in a new place, turtles’ natural homing beacon may cause them to wander aimlessly trying to get back.
Why you should help turtles cross roads
The most obvious answer is that you have saved a turtle from the high risk of being run over. You are a turtle hero! A larger, long-term reason is that you could be helping preserve an entire species. Most turtle eggs and hatchlings are eaten. Predators like raccoons, snakes, foxes and even skunks are above turtles on the food web.
The Wildlife Epidemiology Laboratory estimates that out of 100 eggs laid in the wild, seven will actually hatch into baby turtles. Of those seven, four will survive the first year. Of those four, it is unlikely all of them will survive to adulthood.
In Indiana, there are eighteen species and subspecies of turtles. Our Department of Natural Resources lists the spotted turtle (Clemmys guttata) as state-endangered. They are on the brink of extinction throughout their range in east-central Indiana.
There’s another way to help turtles and other wildlife: support organizations and actions that protect threatened habitats. Wetlands are increasingly divided into fragments by infrastructure like roads. Preserving these habitats in long sections versus smaller chunks means there are fewer dangerous obstacles to navigate.
So, why did the turtle cross the road? In the end, it doesn’t really matter. The important takeaway is how and why you could be a protector of our slow-moving wildlife.
Kelley V Phillips is the Outreach Coordinator for Red-tail Land Conservancy. Her work in community engagement inspires excitement and wonder in nature through education and tangible experiences.