Ask a Naturalist: Why does the turtle cross the road?

Blandings turtle.

Blandings turtle.

This article was written by Elizabeth Poulson and Anna Toenjes, Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board Naturalists at North Mississippi Regional Park

 

Turtles are some of the oldest animals on the planet, and although they have persisted through millennia of natural upheavals and disasters, turtles still face significant challenges to their everyday survival. In addition to predation or unfavorable shifts in weather conditions, human-related threats such as roads and cars, have become an ever more prevalent challenge to these shell wearing wonders.

This somewhat gloomy outlook for turtles serves as a catalyst to gain a deeper understanding of turtles and their habitats through ongoing monitoring efforts.

Monitoring projects enable scientists and land managers to gather information and field data about turtles such as where they live, how they reproduce, what they eat, how they adapt for winter, and any potential or known survival threats. Knowing more about these characteristics and how they are intertwined with other environmental factors can help land managers make better, more informed decisions. Conservation management efforts can then be focused on protecting and preserving quality habitats for turtles and other vulnerable wildlife species.

Collecting data of locations with high turtle road mortality and identifying areas of high species diversity can be vital to determining which high-quality habitats would be most beneficial to protect. Comparing this data can help conservation organizations make informed, focused purchases for land rights to prevent site development on high-quality habitats. Other methods include installing permanent interventions on roadways such as wildlife tunnels, diversion fencing, and altered curb lines. Some habitats that are frequent turtle destinations can even be improved with the addition of sand piles for more nesting availability.

Minnesota has nine native species of turtles that nest here, but unfortunately four of those nine species are listed as either Threatened or of Special Concern by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. These species are identified as being at greater risk of disappearing from the state. Two of the largest factors threatening turtles are human-related habitat loss and habitat degradation. Simply the presence of human activity in a habitat, such as roads, degrades the quality of a habitat. Crossing these roads is a significant challenge for turtles and increases the risk of mortality. This is especially true for breeding females traveling to nest sites to lay their eggs.

One of the main reasons we see more turtles on roadways during mid-May into July is because females are looking for a safe place to lay their eggs. Turtles generally have relatively small “home” ranges and do not travel great distances from where they hatch. For a female whose range has a road going through it, she may have no option but to cross it in order to reach a preferred nesting or feeding site. The areas where turtles make their homes are often subject to human-caused disturbances such as shoreline alteration, wetland loss and upland development for agriculture, wider roads, stores, parking lots or homes. When habitat is lost or degraded, populations of turtles become separated, which makes it more difficult to find a mate or nesting area. These ecological factors can contribute to unstable or skewed turtle populations. In some populations there are much higher percentages of males due to the increased road mortality of wandering females seeking suitable nest sites. Over a short time this can cause significant declines in even common species like the Painted Turtle.

Another reason to be concerned about overall turtle populations is that they are slow to mature. It may take a turtle 10-15 years before they are ready to reproduce. In long-lived species (some native turtles can live up to 85 years!) protecting the adults is just as important as protecting new hatchlings. A breeding female may produce as many as 500 eggs in her lifetime and losing even a few of these long-lived females can seriously impact populations.

So, when you see a turtle crossing the road, is there something that you can do to help? If a turtle is not in danger, they should be left alone. You can supervise them from a safe distance until they have reached the other side of the road. Turtles crossing roadways are usually moving to a familiar nesting location—in other words, they are on a mission and know their destination, so please don’t turn them around or move them to a new area. If you decide you’d like to help the turtle cross the road, signal your intent and slowly pull off the road. Using caution, pick up the turtle by the back of its shell (never by its tail!) and move it in the direction it was heading. If you do not feel comfortable picking up a large or defensive turtle you can help by gently pushing it along with a stick or hold their hind legs and “wheelbarrow” the turtle across the road faster. Yet another option is if you have car mats to take one out and coax the turtle onto it so you can drag them across the road. Wave goodbye to your new turtle friend and always wash your hands after handling any wildlife.

To learn about other ways to help turtles or meet one up close, visit us at North Mississippi Regional Park. There are many free naturalist programs offered at the Kroening Interpretive Center on a range of topics for families and adults each weekend. Stop by and find your nature niche! If you have young children, try out our Nature Nuts playgroup for kids under age six (with an adult) to explore the outdoors while learning about seasons, plants and animals. Summer camp registration is open—sign up kids ages 6-12 for nature day camps to explore, get messy and learn by doing!

June Public Programs – Free for all ages unless otherwise noted!  June 1, Bird Watching: Beginner Basics  from 8:30-10am; June 1, Trail Trekkers : Adults 10-11am and Families 11:15-12:15; June 2, Family Funday: Toads, Frogs & Polliwogs, Jump into the world of amphibians  1-3pm; June 8, Get Outdoors Day, Discover new ways to enjoy the outdoors, 1-4pm; June 15, Special Event: Summer Starter, Kick off summer, 3-8pm; June 15, Hike: Join us for a riverside stroll, 2:30-3:30pm; June 21, Senses in the Season Hike: realign your senses after the work week, 5-6pm; June 22, Outdoors: Pollinators in the Prairie, come discover the magic of pollinators,1:30-3pm; June 27,Field Day: Winged Wonders, kids ages 5-13 can discover bird adaptations through games and activities, 1-3pm, $5; June 29, Nature Art: Tie Dye Make a lasting impression with nature, 2:30-3:30pm,$5; and June 30, Family Funday: Summer Arts and Animals, learn about neighborhood nature from 1-3pm.

Find registration for these programs and more at minneapolisparks.org or 612-370-4844. Do you have a question about nature in your own backyard? Then send it our way by emailing northmississippi@minneapolisparks.org and it could appear in a future article. Like us on Facebook to stay in the loop about what is happening at your park.