It’s the time of year in North Georgia when it’s not uncommon to see a domed silhouette inching across a two-lane road, cars zooming by on either side.
My heart always sinks when I see a box turtle making its way over a public road, and if I can do it safely, I pull over and move it, even if I have to turn around and come back. It breaks my heart to see a smashed shell and to know I was too late, but I’ve actually seen a lot fewer of these reptilian fatalities in recent years, and I’m hoping it’s because people are more aware.
I recently spoke with Dr. Tracey Tuberville, a senior research scientist at the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory research unit, to gain some insight on how to best help the box turtles I come across on public roads. She’s been with SREL since her days as an undergrad at Furman University. She originally came to the unit for a research experience and stayed while she earned her master’s degree and Ph.D at UGA.
Tuberville is the second herpetologist I’ve interviewed in the past few months, and I have to say, they’re a passionate bunch. She was brimming with information, and I got some in-depth reasoning on guidelines that most of us probably already follow when relocating box turtles short distances. She began by telling me that turtles, which we know are already not lightening-fast movers, often panic as cars rush by. Understandable.
“Roads are a problem for turtles in general. There’s a tendency to freeze, and it takes them longer to cross,” she explained.
She said people who want to help turtles cross roads should move them in the direction they were originally heading. I was familiar with this advice, but she gave me some new insight. Apparently, box turtles are determined animals and will risk their lives crossing a road again if people put them back on the side where they started. Tuberville also said it’s a good idea to walk turtles a little way off a road in the direction they were going.
She said they get very attached to their established territories, which helps answer the age-old question of why the turtle crossed the road. They make these attempts for a variety of reasons. Breeding season was back in early summer, but they might be crossing now in search of food.
Most of them, Tuberville says, overwinter in the same places, so later in the year, you might run across them as they travel back to those spots where they burrow beneath the soil for the season. Herpetologists call this habit of returning to the same site each year “fidelity.” Tuberville told me a story about a turtle that SERL scientists had studied whose winter site was obscured when a tree fell on it. For several years, the turtle got as close as it could to the site and burrowed in for the winter as it waited for the tree to decompose.
This description gave me a better idea of what might be going on when I see one of these reptiles painstakingly inching past double yellow lines.
Another thing I think about when I pass one of these guys (or girls) is how long they’ve been alive. Some of them have been here longer than I have, and it’s a travesty to me to think they might lose their lives trying to cross a road. Box turtles typically live 20 to 40 years, but Tuberville said it’s possible for them to live up to 100 years. This phenomenon can be problematic when it comes to research.
“It’s hard to study these turtles long enough because they basically, outlive the people studying them,” she explained.
I asked Tuberville about helping injured turtles, and she said it’s best to contact your local Department of Natural Resources office for help since it’s illegal in many states to harbor box turtles at home. It’s possible to make repairs to broken shells that will allow turtles to live, but wildlife rehabbers need to be the ones taking care of them, she explained.
Before you pull over to help one of these determined and long-lived creatures, I want to caution you to put your personal safety and that of anyone riding in your car first. I usually scout out a good place to pull over as I pass a turtle, and then I turn around and make my way slowly back, parking well off the road and being mindful of traffic. Tuberville was outspoken about human safety, too. She stated several times that those looking to help box turtles need not do it at their own peril.
If you’ve never heard of SREL, I encourage you to visit the website, srel.org. There are some great learning opportunities available under the “educational materials” tab. And as you’re traveling, I hope you’ll have a better understanding of the box turtles you come across.