Why Turtles Cross the Road and How You Can Help

Here on the Cape the month of June signals the time in which gravid (egg-bearing) female turtles begin to search for a suitable place to nest. The world we now live in consists of habitat that is often broken up by highways, buildings, and parking lots. There’s evidence to suggest that turtles are drawn to remaining open spaces (often, roads) in their quest for the perfect nesting substrate, a trait which often puts them in harm’s way.

A box turtle in a roadway can look like a rock, a pine cone, or a clump of dead leaves. In this picture, a pine cone is to the left of the turtle.

If you find a turtle in the road, there are a few things you can do to help it cross safely:

·        If you see a turtle moving to the other side of the road, consider allowing it to cross on its own while you monitor its progress. Obviously, this only works if there is no traffic, and it’s safe to do so.

·       If you do decide to assist, always move a turtle in the direction it was
traveling. Move it in as direct a line as possible, and as far off the road as
you realistically can. I’d suggest a minimum of 30 feet, with 50 feet being
ideal. Placing the turtle on the roadside may disorient it and the turtle could move back into the road.

·        Handle the turtle gently and only as much as necessary to get it out of the road. Grasp the sides of the carapace (shell) with two hands behind the front legs and keep it right side up. Many times, frightened turtles will poop when picked up, so you might want to anticipate that!

·        Snapping turtles present some special challenges and moving them should only be done by folks comfortable working with a large,
angry turtle! When approached, snappers will typically go into a defensive posture and may strike if you attempt to handle them. Instead, place a vehicle floor mat or a trunk liner on the road in front of the turtle. Gently push the turtle onto the mat with a blunt object and drag the mat with the turtle on top of it across the road. Never attempt to lift a snapper by its tail as this can permanently harm the animal.

·        Above all, only attempt to help an animal cross when it is safe for you to do so. Pull completely off the road and turn on your hazard lights.

In addition to searching for suitable nesting sites, there are other reasons that turtles move within and out of their home ranges. This can include a shortage of resources which necessitates a range shift or extension.  Young or juvenile turtles will sometimes seek out new territory as they begin to mature. This is particularly true of juvenile male snapping turtles.

At Wellfleet Bay we closely monitor our box turtle population both with capture and release methods as well as radio transmitters. Some of our turtles move very little and have been found in the same general area for a very long time. Others wander over the entire 1100-acre property and have done so for years. Those that we have followed for a long time seem to make the same trek every year, often ending up in the same general area season after season. We are also monitoring four headstarted box turtles, which are now in their third season and beginning to explore beyond where they have resided for the past two years.

An Eastern Box Turtle on the move at Wellfleet Bay.

The next time you come upon a turtle in the road, understand that it knows where it’s going. Our role is to help it get there safely. By assisting turtles along the way and keeping them safe, we are helping to preserve animals that need all of the help they can get.

Tim O’Brien to the rescue of a box turtle. (Photo courtesy of Kim Novino)

This post was contributed by volunteer Tim O’Brien, who conducts box turtle research at Wellfleet Bay. Tim, along with his wife Kim Novino, are also active sea turtle volunteers.

2 thoughts on “Why Turtles Cross the Road and How You Can Help

  1. Martha Rullman

    A big thank you to Peter Morris at the Wellfeet DPW for being proactive and caring about the turtles and other wildlife. The Wellfleet DPW crew recently put up several turtle crossing signs on Lieutenant Island Rd.

    1. Wellfleet Bay Post author

      And thanks to you, Martha, for your concern for turtles and taking the time to request the signs!!


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