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Turtle Crossing: How You Can Help

Turtle Crossing: How You Can Help

Bog Turtle
June 19, 2019

You may have noticed an increase in the number of turtles out on the roads over the last couple of weeks.  This is because spring and early summer are the times turtles are moving about to find mates and a place to lay their eggs.  

Pennsylvania is home to 14 different species of turtles; many are listed as threatened or endangered in the state or nationally. Habitat loss and fragmentation are a big part of their decline. In addition, turtles are often taken from the wild to be kept as pets.  Removing just one mature female turtle from the wild can have a devastating effect on the population. 

While turtles tend to stay very close to home, often their small range is bisected by roads. Roads are a dangerous obstacle for an animal most famous for being slow. If you see a turtle contemplating a crossing, you can give them a quick lift to the other side. You won’t just be assisting the turtle, either. Our late co-founder George A. “Frolic” Weymouth was a turtle enthusiast and we know that every time we help a turtle cross safely we are helping preserve his legacy of protecting the delicate ecosystem of the Brandywine Valley.

Here are a few things to keep in mind before you jump to aid these slow pokes:   

Common Snapping Turtle; Image from by Chris Evans, University of Illinois

Make Sure It’s Safe

Pull your car completely off the road and use your flashers to alert other drivers of the potential hazard. Be aware of your surroundings and traffic.  Identify if the turtle you are approaching is a snapping turtle. They are identifiable by their green gray color, three slight ridges running head to tail on their shells, and generally formidable appearance.  

Avoid Interference If Possible

Excessive handling can disrupt turtles’ natural behavior.  If the road is clear, simply observe and let the turtle cross on its own. 

Eastern Box Turtle; by Whitney Cranshaw, Colorado State University

Handle Turtles Carefully

If the turtle is not a snapping turtle, it can easily be handled. Carefully pick it up with both hands behind its front feet, tail close to you. Hold on firmly, they are strong and may try to kick away from you. Never pick a turtle up by the tail, this can permanently dislocate their spine.

If the turtle you are approaching is a snapping turtle; you can still help it cross with a few safety measures. Find something that can be used to push the turtle. Boxes, shovels, car matts, anything that puts space between you and the turtle. Approach from behind and carefully push it forward. Sometimes a poke is all they need to move along quickly.

Maintain Direction of Travel

Determine which way the turtle is headed. Try to deliver the turtle to the other side of the road where it would have ended up if it had walked a straight line.  Set in down as soon as it is safe on the other side of the road.

Turtle Crossing sign by Christian Engelstoft

Don’t Give Them a Ride

You may be inspired to do a turtle a favor by delivering it to a nice swampy forest, but turtles are attached to their hometown. They spend most of their lives in one square mile and if moved will try to return. They have been observed wandering for days looking for familiar surroundings and many don’t survive relocation.   

Baby Snapping Turtle by the Brandywine Conservancy

Don’t Take Them Home

Turtles are cute, but they are wild animals and should remain so.  Turtle populations are shrinking quickly and each individual is important to keeping them viable. Turtles are not suitable pets for children because they often carry salmonella.  It is important to wash your hands thoroughly after handling any reptile.  

Turtles face many threats in our region and around the world.  Helping a turtle cross the road is a step you can take to keep that individual safe.  If you follow these guidelines it can be a positive experience for all – and well worth the effort!