Nature Notes: Turtle Crossing!
Updated: Jun 18, 2021
As May comes to end, we’ve seen a dramatic transformation of our landscape. I was out of town from May 12th-20th and was shocked by the changes upon my return! It’s a jungle out there! Everything has leafed-out, the grass is green, and the flowers are blooming. The woods are filled with birdsongs and are wetlands are alive with the chorus of the frogs. It’s a busy time in the animal kingdom; animals are finding mates, laying eggs, giving birth, and/or raising young. Our turtle species are also occupied with this survival need at the moment. Turtles lay their legs on land, so females must take on the dangerous journey of coming out of the safety of the water to dig a nest and deposit eggs into it. Males rarely travel far from the water, but a female may venture up to a mile away from water to find the perfect spot to lay her eggs. This journey usually requires her to face the hazards of cars on roads near our wetland habitats.
A study from a student at Clemson University found a frightening percentage of drivers actually swerve out of their way in order to run over turtles on the road, which is hard for me to even fathom! Why would anyone want to do this? The student, Nathan Weaver, put a very realistic rubber turtle in the road, hunkered down out of sight of the cars, and recorded their interactions. In one of his locations, one out of every 50 cars ran over the turtle and, shockingly, nearly 70% of the cars that hit the rubber turtle did so deliberately.
We’ll find turtles on the roads from now until about mid-summer, but mostly during the month of June. Up here in our neck of the woods, the two turtles that are seen mostly commonly are the beloved Painted Turtle and the more feared Common Snapping Turtle. Snapping Turtles are very large in size and can weigh up to 35 pounds. For some reason, (such as serious damage to your car), people seem to have an easier time avoiding these behemoths. Unfortunately, I do see a lot of injured/dead painted turtles on the road, so please be on the lookout for turtles while you are driving!
Snapping Turtles are MN’s largest turtles. With powerful jaws and a long neck, they can quickly lunge out and strike at prey, or a threatening human hand!
Why don’t turtles just lay their eggs closer to the water to avoid crossing the road? As it turns out, a female’s decision about where to make her nest can have a huge impact on her offspring! The sex of young turtles is determined by the nest temperature during a particular phase of egg incubation. In Painted Turtles, temperatures above about 83 will typically produce females while temperatures lower than that will typically produce males. Therefore, if the turtle picks a place that has relatively thick vegetation cover providing shade, the soil temperature will be lower and more likely produce males. If she picks a spot that is relatively uncovered, the sun will raise the soil temperature, likely producing female offspring. Snapping Turtles apply the same principle, but backwards; lower nest temperatures typically hatch females, while warmer spots hatch males.
In May, it is not uncommon to find tiny Painted Turtles making their way towards the water. As these turtles do not start laying eggs until May and it takes between 50-80 days for the turtles to develop in their eggs, this is too early for these tiny turtles to be from this year’s clutch. Instead, they are turtles that hatched at the end of last summer or early last fall but did not emerge from the nest. Sometimes, the young hatchlings overwinter in the nest and emerge to travel back to the water early the next spring. Years with cold temperatures and little snow cover for insulation can be devastating to these overwintering hatchlings.
This little guy was found in the first week of May, sure to be a hatchling from the previous summer’s nest!
Female Painted Turtles lay between 3 and 20 elliptical (oval) eggs in their underground nests. Female Snapping Turtles lay up to 100, but usually 25-50, spherical eggs in their nests. The difference in shape can be a useful identification clue if you find turtle eggs or eggshells. After laying the eggs, female turtles will not see or care for their young. Now, they are on their own. Unfortunately, most of the eggs will never hatch. Many of the nests will be dug up by a predator, such as a skunk, raccoon, or fox, within the first night or two. Of the eggs that do hatch, more turtles may be lost to freezing temperatures if they overwinter in the nest. When they make the journey back to water, even more will be lost to dehydration, predators, or cars on their pathway.
What remains of a nest after being dug up by a predator.
So what can you do? If you see a Painted Turtle in the middle of the road, “rushing” as quickly as it can to the other side, help a sister out! The best thing you can do for a turtle is to park in a safe spot on the roadside nearby, turn on your flashers, and alert oncoming traffic to the turtle in the road. Let her cross on her own. If you do move a turtle, make sure to put her on the side of the road in the direction she was heading, otherwise, she may try to cross the road again. It's important to pick the turtle up with hands on both sides, making sure to support their lower shell as you lift to avoid internal stress for the turtle. Turtles often release their bladders when lifted, so if the turtle pees - be ready! Don't get scared and drop it! Make sure to wash your hands if you handle a turtle.
If you see a snapper in the road, it is better to leave her where she is, as they have a pretty fierce bite (also, Nora recently found out that they can jump!). Some people attempt to pick them up by their tails to steer clear of those snapping jaws, but please don’t do that! It can damage the turtle’s backbone and your well-intentioned rescue mission can end up causing more harm than good! Again, if there is a safe way to alert oncoming traffic to the turtle, it is best to let her cross on her own! If it's not safe, get a broom, shovel, or even a stick and gently move her the direction she was going. If she bites down on your tool - great! Slowly drag her to the side of the road. You can also report a turtle crossing (even if the turtle died in the process) to the MN DNR or WI DNR. Both are gathering data about popular turtle road crossing locations in order to make them safer for turtles in the future!
If you find a turtle in or near your yard laying eggs, keep yourselves, children, and pets at least 20 feet away. Enjoy watching her from a distance in order to keep her stress level down! The Wisconsin DNR has a free DIY guide and video to help you create a simple turtle nesting cage to place over the nest, to help prevent predators from eating the eggs before they hatch. Lastly, the best way for you to help is to educate your family and friends about turtles, their awesomeness, and how to protect them, especially during nesting season!