Turtles on the Move

During your travels, you may notice a turtle in the middle of the road. It is a common occurrence at this time of year because it’s egg-laying time. While all turtles occupy watery places most of the year, females seek out sandy or gravelly places to lay their eggs during the month of June. Some scientists believe that they perhaps return to the same place where they themselves were hatched but I don’t see how anyone would know that.

In any case, turtles cross roads to lay eggs somewhere on the other side for reasons known only to themselves. If you should spot a turtle in the road while driving, by all means try to avoid hitting it. If you can safely pull over and get out, carefully pick the turtle up by the sides of its shell—not by its tail—and carry it across the road in the same direction that it was heading. If it happens to be a snapping turtle, “carefully” is the operative word here. And if it hisses at you, it’s simply expressing its thanks.

According to the state Department of Environmental Conservation, thousands of turtles in New York are killed by motor vehicles each year while migrating to their nesting areas. Most female turtles don’t lay eggs until they mature at about 10 years of age and their clutches are small in number. Since she only lays one clutch per year, the loss of a single breeding female can have a significant effect on a local turtle population. Drivers should be particularly cautious on roads that are adjacent to rivers, ponds, and marshy areas.

The DEC advises that it’s important to use extreme caution when moving snapping turtles; either pick the turtle up at the rear of the shell near the tail using two hands, or slide a car mat under the turtle to drag it across the road. Do not take the turtle into personal possession. All native turtles are protected by law and cannot be collected without a permit.

I photographed the mossy-backed female snapping turtle in the image above as she deposited her eggs into an excavation that she had dug using only her hind feet. When she was finished, she buried them the same way.

Story and photo by John Adamski