Why Did the Turtle Cross the Road?

To get to the other side of course! At this time of year, many female turtles are crossing busy roads to find a place to lay their eggs. I saw a snapping turtle doing so just the other day. With more and more roads being added all the time, however, these reptiles are finding it harder and harder to survive these crossings. Please be on the lookout for them! Drive slowly, particularly near swamps, freshwater marshes, streams, ponds, and lakes.

The familiar Eastern Box Turtle (Terrepene carolina), a yellowish orange woodland turtle with a high-domed shell, was once common in the state. It now is a Connecticut Species of Special Concern, meaning that its population has declined and so is protected by law from being collected. Its decline is in part due to habitat loss and the increased network of roads.

Eastern Box Turtles (Terrepene carolina) aren’t able to close into their hinged shell until four or five years old.
Photo by Greg Watkins-Colwell

Years ago, when I was working at a nature center, a truck driver dropped off a box turtle he had found crossing a road in Georgia. He thought he was “rescuing” it by dropping it off here in Connecticut. A kind instinct, but not helpful. In reality, box turtles have a strong territorial and homing instinct. Had we released it in Connecticut, it would not have survived. Fortunately, we were able to find a permanent home for it. If you see a turtle in the wild, please don’t remove it. First, turtles can carry salmonella. And, in captivity they require a lot of care with a special diet and lighting. Once captive, they should not be released back to the wild. They would be unlikely to survive and can pass diseases to wild turtle populations.

With good habitat, such as an overgrown meadow near a wetland, box turtles can find plenty of food. They are omnivorous and eat plenty of slugs and other invertebrates, plus fruits like wild strawberries. In a high quality habitat a turtle can spend its whole life on only a half to 10 acres. Unfortunately, such habitat is increasingly fragmented. Protecting choice wild tracts is key for the continued survival of these reptiles. Box turtles reach sexual maturity only after 10 years or more and can live to be 100 years old!

Eastern Painted Turtles might now be in competition for food and basking areas by non-native, invasive Red-Eared Sliders (Trachemys scripta) which were released by pet owners.
Photo by Greg Schechter / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

When you’re near ponds, lakes, and wetlands, be on the lookout for aquatic turtles like the Eastern Painted Turtle (Chrysemmys picta), Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina), and Spotted Turtle (Clemmys guttata), among others. The Eastern Painted Turtle and the Common Snapping Turtle are two of our most widespread species. They are often seen in ponds, slow-moving streams, rivers, and lakes. To regulate its body temperature, the Eastern Painted Turtle loves to bask on logs. Snapping turtles don’t bask very often. All three turtles have an omnivorous diet, feeding mostly on fish, tadpoles, aquatic invertebrates, and vegetation. Snapping turtle females “come ashore” to lay from 20 to 50 (occasionally 80) round eggs, which look like ping pong balls, in warm, loose soil. Interestingly, studies have shown that soil temperature influences the sex of the turtles that hatch. If the eggs remain at 58 degrees F (about 14 degrees C), all the turtles will be females. At 73 degrees F (about 23 degrees C), all will be males. But, if the temperature is raised to 77 degrees F (25 degrees C), the hatchlings will be females! Because soil temperature varies and the eggs are laid at different depths, there will be different combinations of male and female offspring in a season.

When you see aquatic turtles such as the Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) walking on land, it is a female searching for a place to lay her eggs.
Photo by Twan Leenders

The Spotted Turtle is also a Connecticut Species of Special Concern, because the slow-moving streams, bogs, and other freshwater wetlands habitats they prefer are decreasing. This small, 4.5-inch (about 11 cm) turtle is often seen in early March basking in the sun after emerging from a deep type of hibernation called torpor. Females travel to lay an average of four to five eggs in sunny locations such as roadsides and meadows.

Spotted Turtles (Clemmys guttata) can sometimes be seen basking in freshwater wetlands during early spring.
Photo by Twan Leenders

Turtles have been on the planet for millions of years. We need to help them survive much longer. So, if you see a turtle crossing the road, please slow down and give them a “brake”!

Published by Jim Sirch

Jim Sirch is the author of Beyond Your Back Door, a weekly blog about nature in your neighborhood. He is also Education Coordinator for the Yale Peabody Museum, a UConn Master Gardener and board member of his local land trust. As a trained naturalist, he brings a deep understanding of geology, plants and wildlife and how they interact within a particular ecosystem. He holds a B.S in Forestry from West Virginia University, a B.S. from Miami University in Science Education; and an M.S. in Environmental Studies Administration from Antioch University. He is also the 2014 Sigmund Abeles Award recipient from the Connecticut Science Teachers and Supervisors Association for outstanding science teaching and professional development.

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