Deadly Crossings

Turtles often die on roads, but people can help them navigate safely

  • Jennifer S. Holland
  • Conservation
  • Jun 01, 2018

Not built for speed, a Florida red-bellied cooter risks injury or death as it crosses a road in Florida. Signs warn motorists in Maine (below) to watch for turtles searching for water or nesting sites.

WHEN I RECENTLY had to step over the crushed remains of a woodland box turtle on a rural Virginia road, I felt the sad truth that turtles are no match for pickup trucks. But turtles will travel: In spring and summer many species move between habitats to find food, nest sites and mates, in some cases traveling more than a mile across multiple roadways. Turtles also are known to bask on warm pavement and nest in roadside gravel—habits that often end in tragedy.

Surveys hint at the toll of vehicular strikes. Derek Yorks of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, for example, counted 40 painted turtle carcasses last July along one stretch of road near a Maine wetland. And a team monitoring Massachusetts roads in the summer of 2010 reported 101 dead turtles of multiple species at a single stream crossing.

In the West, expanding energy development has brought densely packed roads. That’s a relatively new danger to federally threatened Mohave Desert tortoises, according to Priya Nanjappa of Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation.

Wherever it happens, each roadkill matters. A single female painted turtle—the most widespread U.S. species—may lay up to 50 eggs per season during her 30-plus-year life, but she must survive her first decade to reach sexual maturity. And a female Blanding’s turtle may take 20 years of reproductive effort to have a single offspring that survives to adulthood. Car strikes alone could wipe out an entire population of this endangered species.

Maine turtle crossing sigh

Even without road mortality, many turtle populations are declining as habitat is fragmented or destroyed. “Some of these,” says John Kleopfer of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, “are what we call ghost populations, made up of old turtles just hanging on with little or no recruitment.” Bog turtles of the eastern United States are one example. “There are several sites throughout their range where researchers are just finding the same old adults year after year, with no evidence of hatchlings and subadults,” says Kleopfer. “With consistent losses, they’ll reach a breaking point and crash.”

What can be done? In addition to alerting drivers with “turtle crossing” signs, there’s a move to design safe passages to steer the reptiles away from danger. A 2012 fencing project in Massachusetts that kept turtles off a heavily trafficked road reduced mortality there by 90 percent. And researchers are testing new fence and tunnel designs to lead turtles to safety. “It turns out turtles are afraid of the dark,” says Yorks, who says several species are more willing to enter well-lit passageways. Such knowledge will help biologists develop more-effective turtle-saving tools.

Building better crossings requires knowing a species and its habitat well—or good intentions may backfire. In California, desert tortoises have overheated and died after pacing along fencing rather than following it to a safe crossing. And a culvert touted as a wildlife passage near a Palm Springs wind-energy facility entombed a desert tortoise when the culvert flooded with water and sand.

Read the Caption
Injured eastern box turtle, Turtle Rescue of the Hamptons, Long Island, NY

Badly injured on Long Island, this eastern box turtle, patched with zip ties and medical dressings, spent nearly two years in rehab before being safely released to the wild.

Reason to hope—and help

Those who appreciate turtles’ role as scavengers, seed dispersers, predators and prey have reason to hope. Along with crossing research, federal money is on the way: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service just awarded a five-year grant for turtle protection in states from Maine to Florida, including mitigation for road impacts.

Turtles are also “remarkably resilient,” says Kleopfer. “I’ve seen them really messed up from car strikes or lawn mowers, and they just heal and keep going.” That’s due in part to shells made of bone and keratin, living tissue that can grow and mend itself. And wildlife rehabilitators can help fix broken shells using everything from medical tape, epoxy and plumbers’ putty to hooks, wires and screws.

Resilience aside, if you see a turtle on a dangerous crossing, here are some tips to ensure a safe journey:

• Move the turtle in the direction it was already going. If you aren’t sure where it’s heading, put it on the side of the road with more cover or water.

• Don’t pull or pick up a turtle by its tail as you may damage its spine.

• To avoid a bite, grab the shell near the hind legs and gently drag the turtle, or pick it up by gripping the upper shell near the tail with one hand and sliding the other underneath.

• Wash your hands later as some turtles can carry Salmonella bacteria.

• Never take a turtle to a “nicer” spot down the road. If you move it, Yorks says, it may cross more roads to return to familiar turf.

 • If a turtle is injured, report it to a wildlife office or take it to a wildlife rehabilitation center, but note the turtle’s location so it can be returned there after treatment.

• Don’t try to mend a cracked turtle shell: “A turtle is not the same as a broken teacup,” says wildlife rehabilitator Patricia Johnson of the Center for Amphibian and Reptile Conservation. This living bone must be treated properly to avoid infection.

Helping a turtle is worth the detour: Each one you save may be the mother of the next generation.

Jennifer S. Holland wrote about spider webs in the October–November 2017 issue.

More from National Wildlife magazine and the National Wildlife Federation:

Why Communities Matter for Wildlife »
Turn the Tide for Turtles: Help Them Live to a Very Old Age »
Making Amends with Box Turtles »
Arrested Recovery »
Our Work: Connecting Wildlife Habitats »
Habitat Highways »

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