Why Did the Turtle Cross the Road?

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 painted turtle ((Chrysemys picta) visited my yard today to dig her nest and lay her eggs

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).

Eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina) crossing a road.

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?

Eastern snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina). Photograph by Paul Sattler

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.

Juvenile Painted turtle found on April 14, 2012 desiccating on a roadway in Chelmsford MA
Following 30 minutes of rest in a shallow bucket of water the little turtle was ready for its trip to the nearby pond

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.

Vandals removed the Turtle Crossing sign off of Smith Street in Chelmsford MA last summer.

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.

What’s in a Name?

So I have had several people ask me why I called my blog “Turtle’s Crossing” if it is not only about turtles? Well, this title seemed to ring true to me for a couple of reasons.

First the original idea for this blog was born one night while I was participating in my very first meeting with the Chelmsford Conservation Commission. I had recently moved into this new community and was feeling a little disconnected. One of the topics to be brought forth for the Commission to consider that evening concerned the loss of turtles that occurred every season when juvenile hatchlings encountered a vertical roadway curb in a residential neighborhood.

Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) crossing the road

The situation reminded me of Aldo Leopolds ecologically-based “Land Ethic” in A Sand County Almanac (1949), a work I had not thought of since college (trust me, a very long distant memory). In this ground-breaking effort Leopold argued that there was a need for the evolution of a philosophy that would include consideration of nonhuman members of the biotic community which he collectively referred to as “the land.”  He stated the basic principle of his land ethic as, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”  In his approach we (Homo sapiens) go from a “conquerer” of the natural world to an equal member in something larger than ourselves, where  we recognize the inherent worth of other beings (not just their utility for our purposes) and respect all forms of life and the community as a whole.

A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold

Leopold’s work was one of the first philosophical pre-cursors to an ecological or systems approach such as the contemporary philosophy of “deep ecology” that emphasizes the interdependence of organisms within ecosystems and of ecosystems to each other. It deviated from the dominant philosophies of the day which included utilitarian, economic, egalitarian or libertarian, all of which are still very prominent today.

The concern made me feel “welcome” in a new community with the awareness that an ecological land ethic was alive and well in Chelmsford. It reaffirmed for me that there are people out there that still care and possess the energy to find  a solution and it is still possible to reach out with encouragement and mobilize these individuals or groups to make a difference.  Unfortunately the turtle crossing signs installed to give motorists forewarning of the turtles did not survive the summer (that’s another story).

But I digress. To finish answering the previous question, it seems that I, like the turtle during it’s breeding season, am being compelled by some unseen force of nature to take this literary journey. I am being driven by some innate biological ability similar to the turtle’s homing instinct to navigate in a particular direction towards a location such as a home territory or breeding spot.  I clearly don’t quite know where I am going or why, just that I am heading in the right direction and that somehow I will know when I arrive at my destination.

So here’s hoping that with a little luck maybe I won’t run into any curbs on my way and the trip will culminate in something nearly as special as the successful migration of the turtle.