WHIT GIBBONS’ ECOVIEWS: Why are turtles crossing roads?
Many U.S. turtles begin laying eggs at this time of year, and I have recently received the following questions.
Q: While walking in the woods in north Florida we found a box turtle that had been partially eaten by a predator. Inside her body were four oblong white eggs with firm shells but also lots of smaller, round yellow eggs. Is spring when box turtles lay their eggs? Is it possible to hatch the eggs? Would I need an incubator of some sort?
A: Box turtles lay their eggs in the spring, as do all but two of the more than 50 species of U.S. turtles. And, yes, you might be able to hatch the four shelled eggs. The shelling process within a female turtle generally takes from a few hours up to a day or so. The calcium shell layer of an egg forms around one of the bright yellow follicles (yolk) and becomes leathery. The female may lay the clutch right away or hold them for several days while waiting for suitable environmental conditions of temperature and rainfall. All U.S. turtles lay their eggs on land by digging a hole in the ground, depositing the eggs, and then covering the nest with soil.
You can keep turtle eggs on moist paper towels to hatch them as long as you do not let them dry out or get so wet they get moldy. Two years ago we incubated and hatched eight baby snapping turtles in this way. The eggs were picked up on a highway where the mother turtle had been smashed by a truck as she was leaving a lake to lay eggs. When trying to hatch turtle eggs, do not roll them over for the first several days as the developing embryo gravitates upward and can be suffocated if the egg is moved--once the embryos begin to get larger, moving the eggs is no problem.
Q: In early May I saw two large turtles crossing a highway in south Alabama next to a lake, but they were headed toward a large field. The driver behind me hit one of them and probably killed it. Why would the turtles be leaving the water? If the other car had not been so close that I could not safely stop, should I have put the turtles back in the lake? What if it were a snapping turtle that can definitely bite?
A: Aquatic turtles leave lakes for different reasons. At this time of year, they likely were leaving the water to nest. Thousands of turtles are killed on highways each year by motorists, most of whom do not see the turtle or cannot avoid hitting it. Helping a turtle off a road might save its life. However, the first consideration must be for the safety of you and others on the road. Getting out of a car on a busy highway can be dangerous. If you are in a situation where you can safely help a turtle across the road without creating a traffic hazard, take it to the side in the direction it was headed. Give the turtle credit for knowing where it wants to go and don’t try to second-guess its decision. Also, keep in mind that the turtle will not regard you as a thoughtful, caring individual with its best interests in mind. It will be frightened and will consider you a dangerous predator. Most turtles bite. An adult snapping turtle can inflict a painful bite and serious scratches.
I recently stopped for a large female slider turtle crossing a busy street in Aiken, S.C. The pickup truck in the other lane stopped as well. We sat for about five minutes while the turtle walked across the road and traffic backed up behind us. Amazingly, no one blew a horn. This is probably the best way to get a turtle off the road if you are in a community in which people acknowledge that protecting wildlife is important.
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Whit Gibbons is an ecologist and environmental educator with the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory.