The first turtles evolved over 250 million years ago during the Permian period of the Paleozoic era. Don’t worry if you don’t remember that time: we humans did not exist yet. The Permian was back in the days before any birds or mammals were present and even before dinosaurs came on the scene. By about 200 million years ago, turtles took on a shape and form that has essentially remained unchanged to this day, despite the mass extinctions and branching of new life forms going on around them. Through the Mesozoic and Cenozoic eras they marched, slowly and steadily.
Despite a time-tested, successful design, the turtle’s armored structure is no match for today’s threats. Turtle shells do not protect against habitat loss, degradation, or fragmentation. Nor do they stand up to cars and trucks, to the machinery that we have invented to help us live fast and furiously. Their fable is being re-written.
Ineffectual armor might be fine if turtles bred like rats, but their strategy is entirely different. Their reproductive output is low – very low, relative to other vertebrates – and this is compensated for by their long life spans. Over the course of several decades, a turtle has many chances to successfully replace itself in its population.
Hatchling and yearling turtles have soft, bite-sized shells, a far cry from the protective armor they will adopt if they reach adulthood. When they do reach adulthood, if the protective armor is no longer enough, we have a problem. Of the 10 species native to Massachusetts (not including sea turtles), six are considered rare and even the not-so-rare are believed to be declining overall.
In Berkshire County we co-exist with six species of freshwater turtles. Our common turtles are the painted turtle, the common snapping turtle, and the common musk turtle (formerly known as the “Stinkpot,” which is abundant at specific sites but not widespread). Our hard-to-find species are the spotted turtle (uncommon), the wood turtle (rare), and the bog turtle (very rare). We have records of eastern box turtles as well, but whether they indicate a viable population remains a question.
(NOTE: Painted turtles are often confused with box turtles. Painted turtles are freshwater animals that can also travel over land. Their shells are smooth and black or near black, with red and yellow undersides, and their necks and limbs are black- and yellow-striped. Box turtles are tortoises. They live on land only, not in wetlands. They have a high domed shell variable in patterns of brown and yellow. The underside of the shell, the plastron, is hinged and closes tightly.)
Now that spring has arrived, the turtles are out soaking up the sun. We often see turtles basking on logs, tussocks, and river banks. We also often see them on roads as we whiz by, sometimes alive and crossing, sometimes not so lucky.
What to do when you see a turtle on the road? First, assess whether it’s safe for you to stop and do something for the turtle. If so, and you can safely stop and direct traffic so the turtle can continue on its own, that’s the best-case scenario. If you need to hurry the turtle along, move it in the direction it is headed, no matter how odd that direction might feel to you (i.e. it might be farther from a wetland).
It is tempting to take a turtle home with you, and many of us have done so in our youth with the best intentions. But it’s a bad idea: you are removing it from its population. Demographically speaking, keeping a wild turtle is the same as running over it with your car. If I could “un-rescue” the turtle I thought I was rescuing as a kid (by keeping it in the bathtub and then releasing it somewhere else), I would do so, quick as a bunny.
Freshwater turtles travel over land, often through surprising habitats. It is safe to assume they know where they are and where they are going. Leaving them to their own journeys is the kindest thing we can do, on both the individual and population levels. After all, we are the ones who are new to the neighborhood.
If you are interested in reporting turtles that you observe, the Massachusetts Herpetological Atlas Project makes that possible. You can submit diagnostic photos and precise locations here: http://www.massherpatlas.org
Another helpful resource (including guidelines for helping turtles on roads) is here: