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Please Help Turtles Cross Our Busy Roads

By Christine Newman, DVM

I was driving to work recently when I saw a small object in the middle of Route 518. As I got closer, I realized it was a turtle attempting to cross this busy road. I turned around and, once it was safe to do so, I moved the turtle onto the grass.

Eastern Box Turtle

I returned to my car but then, unsure I had oriented the turtle in the correct direction – the one she had been traveling in – I returned to check and realized she was injured. Her shell was cracked in two places, and she was bleeding. Sigh. I brought her to Harlingen Veterinary Clinic where we radiographed her and treated her with pain medication and antibiotics. The next day we took her to Wildlife Center Friends in Lambertville, where she would be treated and released at the spot where I found her.

I often see squished turtles on the side of the road. It is truly a mystery to me how this can happen so frequently — when turtles move so slowly. It seemed these turtles were being intentionally hit by cars. When I mentioned this to Teddy’s dad (Teddy is my dog Marcus’ best friend) he pointed me to a study that confirmed my theory.

A Clemson student, who was interested in figuring out how to help box turtles cross roads more safely, ran an experiment in 2012. He placed a rubber turtle on a busy road near campus, then he stood on the side of the road and recorded what he observed. Within the first hour, seven drivers swerved to intentionally squish the turtle. This is horrifying! But, it mirrors other studies that show drivers will intentionally hit turtles, and other wildlife.

The turtle I rescued was an Eastern Box Turtle, one of 13 turtle species found in New Jersey. They are between 5-8 inches long and have domed shells, usually predominately black or brown in color with yellow or orange splotches. It gets its name from its defense mechanism, which allows it to withdraw head and feet into the shell forming an almost impenetrable box. Its preferred habitat is a moist forest floor, but they may also be found in pastures and grassy areas. When the temperature is high, they cool themselves by resting in mud.

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Box turtles are omnivores and will eat snails, slugs, worms, mushrooms, plants, and fruits. The female lays eggs into a shallow nest she digs with her hind feet. The eggs are covered and hatch on their own 50-70 days later. The ambient temperature during incubation determines the sex of the turtle, a phenomenon seen in turtles and some fish.

Eastern Box Turtles can live 30 to 40 years, and perhaps as long as 100 years in captivity. They will spend their whole lives with a mile or two of where they were born and will spend tremendous energy trying to return to their home if relocated. These fascinating creatures need our help to survive. Instead of running over a turtle, or just avoiding it, please help them across our roads (only when safe to do so, of course). They are harmless to us and an important part of our local ecosystem.

Google “Roadkill Experiment” to view an informative video about another rubber turtle experiment.


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