So, why did the turtle cross the road? To get to the Shell Station, of course!
O.k., really…what makes a turtle, or any other critter for that matter, attempt such a feat as crossing a busy local road or even a 6 lane interstate highway? Regardless of what we may think it is not because the animal kingdom is secretly conspiring to inconvenience the human race. In the case of the turtle it has had over 230 million years to hone its survival instinct which can best be described as conditioning for preservation of the species. Through adaptive evolution the female turtle has been programmed to leave the watery environment where she spends most of her life and seek out the best upland areas with sandy or gravelly soil (including my butterfly garden and various locations within my back yard) where she is most likely to successfully produce the next generation of turtles.
This is problematic for all turtles when their nesting habitats, which typically consist of open, sandy, well-drained upland, are bisected from their watery environs (which, again, varies from species to species) by a road or other manmade impediment. A related phenomenon which causes mortality occurs where causeway construction, or road maintenance, has created sandy open areas suitable for nesting habitat immediately adjacent to the road shoulder or in the case of J.F.K Airport in between runways. In this instance, turtles are often killed after incidentally ending up on the road surface while scouting for a preferable nest site. In the summer of 2011 runway 4L was closed due the spawning migration of the diamondback terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin).
Journalist Natalie Angier in a 2006 NYT science article states that in man-kind “this Mesozoic era creature may have at last met it’s mortician.” Most experts agree the cause of world-wide declines in turtle populations includes habitat loss, either by outright conversion or indirect fragmentation (can’t get there from here) and a high rate of decline from road mortality and harvest for importation to the Far East as a gourmet delicacy and for traditional medicinal purposes. Basically the slow and steady reproductive pace of turtles, some which may not be physically capable of producing offspring for 40 or 50 years, just cannot keep up with the high rate of adult mortality.
Research indicates that unlike all other animals studied, the organs of turtles do not age or become less efficient over time. Even after a century and a half the vital organs are indistinguishable from that of a juvenile. Researchers have even gone so far as to say that a turtle may live indefinitely (if not lost to disease or trauma). How ironic it would be if humankind, having spent its entire existence on earth seeking immortality, were to destroy the one thing it has always sought due to a selfish lack of consideration for another living organism?
So PLEASE watch out for mother turtles crossing the road as they are now seeking out higher ground to lay their eggs. Please avoid hitting them and if possible, help the turtle cross the road. BUT REMEMBER to always move the turtles in the direction that they were originally heading. If they are moved back to the side from which they were crossing they will just try to cross the road again.
Also, once the eggs hatch in the late-summer to early fall, be on the look out for baby turtles crossing the road to go back to the wetlands and ponds.
One hotspot in Chelmsford to be aware of is the crossing at Smith Street right before the Steadman Street intersection. Unfortunately the Turtle Crossing signs that the Chelmsford Conservation Commission had placed here didn’t make it through their first summer thanks to vandals.
So remember,”and the turtles of course…all the turtles are free, As turtles and maybe all creatures should be. Dr Seuss from Yurtle the Turtle.