Caution: Turtle Crossing

By Dan Thompson, Ecologist, Natural Resources

Why did the turtle cross the road? Unlike the chicken, it wasn’t simply to get to the other side.

DuPage County’s turtles spend the majority of their lives in the water, but they all move to dry land to lay their eggs. Some species venture only a few steps from their aquatic homes to dig their nests, but Blanding’s, snapping and other turtles may need to travel farther to find the right spot.

Successful nests require well-drained soil, but they also need sunny, open ground. Too much shade and the soil won’t get warm enough to incubate the eggs. Considering all of the ways humans have changed the landscape over the past 200 years, it’s not surprising that some turtles must travel up to a mile to find the right conditions, a journey they will instinctively repeat year after year once they’re able to reproduce.

After a female lays her eggs, she covers the nest and starts the walk home. Her parental duties are complete. From the time they hatch, young turtles are on their own, which is why most do not survive, even in the best of conditions. Eggs and juveniles make easy meals for raccoons, skunks and coyotes. When turtles reach adulthood, though, survival rates increase, partially because the animals’ strong, protective shells are better at foiling predators. These rates are vital because 90 percent or more of adults must survive each year to sustain a population. This is why the loss of one adult turtle can be significant. For instance, if a 30-year-old female Blanding’s turtle dies, it’s more than the demise of one individual. A Blanding’s turtle can lay a dozen or more eggs each year and live to be 70 to 80, so the loss of that one female can mean 500 fewer eggs for the overall population. For species like the Blanding’s that are already at critically low numbers, it can be a statistically significant blow.

Painted Turtle USFWS
Survival rates are low for hatchlings like this painted turtle, which is why it’s critical for adult females to safely complete their yearly journeys to nesting sites to lay new eggs. © USFWS 

Turtles have been around for 100 million years and their formula for survival has stood the test of time, but in the past century one obstacle has appeared that they haven’t been able to adjust to: the automobile. In DuPage County, roads built near lakes, ponds and marshes or over rivers can be turtle-crossing hotspots. Some constructed or widened just a few years ago create well-defined obstacles between wet year-round habitat and dry nesting areas that individual turtles have migrated between for decades. And road or no road, these turtles are not altering their routes.

Fortunately, turtles are not as speedy as cottontails, squirrels or deer, so drivers have time to react. Most accidents, in fact, are avoidable by simply following the rules of the road. Focus on driving, don’t speed, and leave plenty of room between cars, and you might be the one to help the next turtle make it to the other side.

If you see a turtle trying to cross the road and want to help it along, there are a few steps you can take, but never do anything that will put you or other people in danger. We all like to do what we can to help local wildlife, but that should never come at the expense of human safety.

  • Never slam on your brakes; gradually slow down. If the safest option is to keep going, try to straddle the turtle if possible. 
  • If there’s plenty of room on the shoulder and you can safely pull over, turn on your hazard lights to alert other motorists. 
  • Make sure you have plenty of time with a big break in traffic before approaching the turtle. Cars approach faster than you think and drivers, especially distracted ones, aren’t expecting to see someone in the middle of the road. 
  • Notice which way the turtle’s facing and move it to that side of the road. If you move it to the side it started from, it will only try to cross again later. 
  • All turtles can bite and scratch and are surprisingly quick, so handle one as little as possible. If it’s a snapping turtle, you may want to avoid it altogether. Most turtles will likely retreat into their shells, but a scared snapper will defend itself. 
  • If you keep a shovel in your car or have a floor mat, gently slip it under the turtle and scoot it across the road. If there’s a sturdy branch nearby, you can try to use it to push the animal along. 
  • If you use your hands, wear gloves if you have them and place one hand on either side of the turtle toward the back. Never pick one up by the tail; it’s part of the spine and cannot support weight. Since you’ll be picking up a frightened animal, there is a small chance it might empty its bladder. 
  • Never move a turtle farther than the side of the road. Turtles are extremely territorial, and taking one to a new habitat — even a better one — can be harmfully disorienting. Some may even set out to find their original homes, journeys they’ll likely not complete.

Snapping Turtle Scott Plantier
A snapping turtle has a powerful bite and a long neck that can extend out and around and down its back in a split second. Watch the video for tips on how to help a snapper on the road. © Scott Plantier STP4793

How to Help a Snapping Turtle Cross the Road
Courtesy of Toronto Zoo  


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