Each year, countless turtles are killed or injured crossing roads as they're struck by vehicles. In the Mid-Atlantic region, these are often box turtles. Roadway mortality is thought to be a major factor in turtle population declines throughout the United States. If you help a turtle cross a road, you're making a valuable contribution to the preservation of North America’s turtles. Even with the best intentions though, many motorists who stop to help often don't know what to do when they spot a turtle in a dangerous roadway. Here's some information to consider when you see a turtle crossing a busy road.
Unlike the chicken, turtles aren't just trying to get to the other side, but actually have someplace to go. During the early summer, many female turtles cross roads bearing eggs, moving toward familiar nesting areas. Semi-aquatic turtles can have seasonal movements between different wetland habitats. Hatchlings in roadways can be looking for ponds and backwater to serve as their permanent home.
Don't put yourself or others in danger. Simply pulling off the road and turning on your hazard lights may alert other drivers to slow down. Be aware of your surroundings and traffic.
Avoid Excessive Handling. While wanting to examine turtles closely is hard to resist, excessive handling can disrupt their normal behavior.
Allow Unassisted Road Crossings. If there's no oncoming traffic, let the turtle cross the road without help. Observe from a distance and avoid sudden movements that may startle it, otherwise the turtle may change direction, stop, or seek shelter within its shell.
Handle Turtles Gently. If you must pick up a turtle, gently grasp the shell edge near the mid-point of the body with two hands (see Handling Turtles). Some turtles empty their bladder when lifted off the ground, so be careful not to drop it if it suddenly does.
Maintain Direction of Travel. Always move a turtle in the same direction it was traveling when you saw it. Place the turtle at least 30 feet from the road (not on the roadside), so if startled by the experience, the turtle does not get disoriented and accidentally run back into the roadway, or freeze and get run over. Turtles should always be moved across roadways in as direct a line as possible. You might be tempted to "help" the turtle by moving it to a wooded area or water body, but the correct solution is to quickly move the turtle the shortest distance possible.
Snapping turtles can present a special challenge. Watch this video on how to help them cross.
Susan Hagood of the HSUS shared this explanation: "Though that may seem like a solution, box turtles are nature's homebodies. They often spend their entire lives in an area no bigger than a couple of acres, where they know every nook and cranny—where the best spots are for finding food or for water on hot summer days or for safe digs to wait out the long winter months. If taken from their homes and released somewhere else, they use their amazing ability...to (attempt to) head home, facing all the hazards that such a journey holds. What's more, the genetic and disease implications of moving box turtles around are completely unknown."
Train tracks pose a BIG problem to many turtles, which seem unable to escape them once they cross over onto the tracks. This impacts turtles of all sizes - even the largest species like snappers and Red-bellies. The danger is not that they're run over, but instead is caused by the height and shape of the tracks which trap the turtles, causing them to rapidly succumb to overheating and desiccation. When you consider how many thousands of miles of tracks exist, the scope of the problem becomes clear!
Check out this video about one creative solution to make train tracks safer for turtles!
Photo above: John Katz