Help Aquatic Turtles

                                                               By Catherine Greenleaf – Lyme, NH

  Why did the turtle cross the road? (No, this is not a chicken joke!)  Female wild aquatic turtles cross the road because they are looking for a sunny and sandy area to lay their eggs.  You will start to notice turtles emerging from the reedy mud at the bottom of vernal pools, ponds and lakes to undergo their annual egg laying sojourn around Memorial Day weekend.  The egg laying of turtles (this includes Snapping Turtles and Painted Turtles) may continue until mid-July.

The best time to tell when turtles will be drawn out of he water to start their travels is the level of humidity.  The first spike in humidity, which marks the beginning of summer for so many of us, also sends a signal to the turtles to start their search for the perfect nesting site.  On that day, you may see a dozen or more turtles emerge from a single body of water.  Wild aquatic turtles do not feel safe being away from their bog, pond or lake, which is why they will quickly dig a hole, lay their eggs, and make their way steadily back to the water.

     I don’t have to tell you how hazardous the journey is for these brave ladies.  Many are hit by cars and trucks and are killed.  Others suffer serious, permanent injuries.  You can help turtles survive by doing six things:

     ONE: When you see a turtle on the road, be kind and slow down.  Pull over, if it is safe to do so, and help escort the turtle (in the direction she was heading) until she safely reaches the dirt.  Never reverse a turtle’s course.  She will only turn around later and end up back on the road in harm’s way.  Always be careful if you have to move a turtle.  It is best to use a plastic storage container and a shovel.  Gently coax the turtle into the box and then carry the box to the opposite side of the road.  Never drag a snapping turtle backward by the tail, as you can rupture the animal’s spine, rendering it permanently paralyzed.

     TWO:  It is never a good idea to transport a turtle to another pond or lake.  A turtle will not adapt to a different environment since they are loyal only to their natal (birth) area.  If you displace a turtle, that animal will spend the rest of its life trying to get back to its point of origin and will most likely be hit by a car.  Also, a turtle’s immune system is only resistant to the pathogens of the environment it is born into.  Putting a turtle into a different body of water only causes disease and passes diseases to other unsuspecting wildlife.

     THREE:  If you see a turtle that has been hit by a car, call your local wildlife rehabilitator right away.  Turtles are tough, even when their shells have been cracked by the impact of a speeding car.  A wildlife rehabilitator can stabilize the turtle and save its life.

     FOUR:  Never attempt to drive over a turtle.  Some cars are built low to the ground and the undercarriage can cause an “avulsion” injury, which occurs when the bridges between the top shell and bottom shell collapse and the top shell is forced onto the bottom shell, crushing the turtle’s internal organs.  This type of injury usually proves fatal.

     FIVE:  Snapping turtles are not the cold-blooded killers some people like to portray them to be.  Although not the most attractive creatures, they are gentle giants, and prefer to mind their own business.  Keep your distance and they will too.  Snapping turtles are the great, unsung heroes of New Hampshire’s water bodies.  They are referred to as “janitors” of our lakes and ponds, since they routinely patrol the bottom of the water to eat muck and detritus.  According to wildlife biologists, if it were not for snapping turtles, our lakes and ponds would lose their crystal clear clarity and turn muddy.  If you have a Snapping Turtle in your pond, consider yourself lucky.  You have a full-time cleaning machine keeping your water clear.

     SIX:  Incubation of aquatic turtle eggs takes several months, which means you will see tiny baby turtles hatching from their eggs and trying to scurry across the road toward the water during the month of August.  Painted turtles usually lay between

5 – 8 eggs in a clutch, and Snapping Turtles lay 20 – 40 eggs.  Pull your car over and allow these little ones to find their way home.

              Catherine Greenleaf is director of St. Francis Wild Bird Center in Lyme, NH.       

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