Turtles are more complicated than they look, and getting to know each species of turtle that calls North Carolina home is a challenge for staff and volunteers at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter (OWLS) in Newport, NC. Turtles come in different shapes (although they all resemble a circle), sizes, coloring, capabilities and live in a variety of habitats. They represent the oldest of all living reptiles, and have undergone little change since their beginnings early in the Triassic period of history. You’ll find turtles throughout North Carolina, from the Coastal Plain to our mountains in the west. Overall, twenty species of turtles, belonging to six different families inhabit North Carolina. Five of these species are sea turtles and one (the Eastern Box Turtle) is terrestrial which means lives primarily on land. The rest are semi-aquatic, inhabiting North Carolina’s ponds, wetlands, and other water bodies. We leave the rehabilitation efforts of sea turtles like Loggerheads and Kemp Ridley’s to the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle and Rehab Center crew at North Topsail. They care for the guys and girls who need to eventually get back to the ocean. Our focus is land and semi-aquatic turtles; Box, Yellowbelly Sliders, River Cooters, Bog, Painted, Mud, Spotted, Musk and the Common Snapping Turtle or often referred to as an Alligator Turtle.
Turtles are admitted to the shelter for a variety of reasons. We’ve seen them injured by fishing gear, litter, lawn mowers, by a dog that held it a little too tightly in his jaws, suffering from upper respiratory infections due to environmental pollutants such as pesticides and quite often, hit by a car. The greatest threat to turtles is habitat loss, particularly destruction and degradation of aquatic habitats. The destruction of terrestrial habitat surrounding wetlands and ponds which is required for nesting, and hibernation for some species, poses significant threats, forcing turtles on the move to find new habitat.
Sadly, thousands of turtles are crushed every year by cars on North Carolina’s roads and highways, which brings us to the question of the day regarding turtles and those who care about them. How do you move a turtle out of the road? The first thing you want to do is safely position your car on the side of the road, (with your hazard lights blinking) to ensure you do not put yourself or others at risk while you rescue the turtle. It would be great if you just happened to have a pair of work or rubber gloves in the car but most people don’t. (Just wash your hands after handling the turtle because they can carry salmonella like most other animals, including pet cats and dogs.) Gently pick up a turtle and move it out of harm’s way, in the direction he or she was heading. What you shouldn’t do is pick up a turtle and move it to what you, as a human, deem to be a safe spot. They always have a good turtle reason why they are heading in the direction they are going. This time of year is turtle crossing time because mates need to be found and eggs need to be laid. If it is a sizeable turtle, especially a snapping turtle, you can use a stick, shovel or broom to push it off the road. Never put your hands or feet near a snapping turtle. A snapper has a neck the length you wouldn’t believe and will be able to reach some part of you. Their vice-grip jaws can cause serious injury. Also, never pick up a turtle by the tail. That hold could easily damage their vertebrae. BUT above all, when moving a turtle from potential disaster in the road, please be CAREFUL and DO NOT put your life at risk. Turtle moving only applies when you are driving down a road where YOU CAN stop and move about safely.
You might be wondering why they cross the road in the first place. It doesn’t seem smart when you consider turtle speed versus vehicular speed. They can’t truly make a serious run for it when they finally do see an approaching automobile. Turtles genuinely need to cross the road because, quite simply, they were here before the road was and ancestral mapping is instinctual. So, a turtle trying to cross the road is not heading in the wrong direction. Her instincts are telling her where to go. They cross the road, moving from one body of water to another to find mates, expand territory, find nesting sites, and lay eggs, sometimes pausing to bask on the warm asphalt along the way. Most turtles day-tripping out into traffic are females heading for that predetermined nesting site. Turtles mature slowly, unable to lay eggs before age ten and can live fifty or more years.
Although 2011 is touted “Year of the Rabbit” by the Chinese, conservationists internationally designated 2011 as “Year of the Turtle” due to the fact that many turtle species are now under threat from a range of man-made problems. Turtles are disappearing from our planet faster than any other group of animal, so let’s do what we can to salvage our turtle heritage, wherever we are. Our careful stewardship can help preserve them.
Author of “Save Them All”