Careful! Don’t Hit a Turtle on our Road

by Barbara Walvoord

( Originally printed in Lathrop Lamp Post,  June 2-9, 2017)

Last spring, Sharon and I found a painted turtle on the road at Mulberry Lane.  Last week we found another one at about the same spot. Last year’s turtle was dead, its shell smashed by a car. This year’s turtle was alive, working its legs rhythmically, hauling its protective shell purposefully across the road.  It knew where it wanted to go, and we had built a road in its way.

Undoubtedly, our turtle has come from a slow moving stream or a pond.  During the winter, it burrowed into the mud at the bottom, or found a muskrat burrow.   While dormant, its body reduced the need for oxygen, so it could “breathe” through its skin, throat lining, and thin-walled sacs near its anus.  Emerging in spring, our turtle stayed near water.  After a graceful courtship dance, in which the male swam around the female, as they stroked each other gently with their legs, the couple sank to the bottom of the pond for underwater mating.

Our turtle’s eggs will need warmth, and the babies will need air.  So mom has to leave the pond, and perhaps cross our road, in search of a sunny, sandy or loamy patch of earth in which to dig a flask-shaped hole and lay her eggs.

After laying her eggs, she’ll cross our road again to return to her pond, where she’ll bask on logs to keep her own body heat up, to counter parasites, and to get vitamin D.  Once she’s warmed up in the morning, she’ll dive or crawl for a salad, as she does again toward evening.

Meanwhile, back at the nest, if the eggs are hot (870) when incubating, they will turn into females; if colder (770), they will turn into males. If medium, then both kinds.

It takes 76 days for an egg to make a turtle, so keep watching the roads all summer,  so you don’t hit the kids on their way back to the pond.  If you find a turtle on the road, stay away so it feels safe to crawl, and be a crossing guard to keep cars from hitting it.  If that’s not possible, it’s okay to pick it up by the sides of the shell about 3/4 of the way back, and move it in the direction it was going. Don’t try to shove or drag it and don’t pick it up by the tail. If it’s a snapping turtle (large, with 3 ridges along its back and a big head and mouth), leave it, because it can lunge a surprisingly long distance and bite off your finger.

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