Some of the turtles’ apparent lethargy can be explained by their physiology. They’re ectothermic—they rely on behavioral adaptations to control their body temperature. Unlike fish and other “cold-blooded” creatures (the so-called poikilotherms), a turtle’s body temperature doesn’t fluctuate in lockstep with the temperature of its environment. Instead, turtles maintain their internal temperature within a fairly narrow range. But they don’t do it in the ways we “warm-blooded” creatures do, by shivering, sweating, or panting. Instead, they move from sun to shadow as required, basking in the sun whenever they need to warm up, immersing themselves in water to cool down. It’s when they’re basking that we paddlers are most likely to see them. Look for turtles on tussocks, beaver lodges and dams, logs, and rocks…anywhere, in short, that’s close enough to the water so they can dive if threatened. But don’t approach too near or make too much noise. This is especially important if you’re hoping for a picture. You’ve got to be stealthy AND quick to capture basking turtles on film.
With their thick shells, leathery skin, and scaly tails, turtles look like bit players from a low-budget knockoff of Jurassic Park. That’s not exactly a coincidence. Turtles thrived alongside the dinosaurs. Then they watched as their big cousins faded from the scene. But turtles weren’t going anywhere. They stayed around to witness the rise of birds and mammals. And while many species of turtles have now become extinct, at least 300 have survived. Part of the explanation may lie in their long lives. We humans think we’re pretty durable creatures, and we are. But turtles are the longevity champions. A Blanding’s turtle is known to have survived 77 years in the wild, and a Galapagos tortoise that was thought to have been one of the specimens collected by Charles Darwin in 1835 (on rather shaky grounds, it must be said) recently died at the ripe old age of 175. This extraordinary hardihood gives turtles a mighty big leg up in the survival stakes, as does their ability to subside into a torpor when environmental conditions deteriorate.
They’re well armored against most of life’s lesser slings and arrows, too. A turtle’s upper shell, or carapace, is its most noticeable feature. This hard dome, as well as the corresponding bottom plate (the plastron), are built up from individual segments called scutes. (Check out the scutes on the painted turtle in the picture to the left.) No other vertebrate has a shell quite like the turtle’s: the two halves are fused to the ribs. It’s apparently a good design. After all, it’s been around, essentially unchanged, for some 250 million years.
And for good reason. Most of the turtles you’re likely to see in and about Canoe Country can pull in all their vulnerable bits—head, feet, and tail—and hunker down within the walls of their portable fortress. Box turtles are particularly well provided for. They have a hinged shell that closes down seamlessly after their legs and head are drawn inside. That’s mighty handy when a nosey coyote or wandering dog comes sniffing around. Snapping turtles are an exception to the hunker-down norm, however. They can’t withdraw into their shells. Their scalloped plastron just doesn’t offer the necessary coverage. It does permit a snapper’s neck and legs to move quite freely, though, and when danger threatens, a snapper can lash out surprisingly far, with astonishing speed. The sharp beak and strong jaw muscles are a formidable combination.
A turtle’s castle is more than a fortress, though. It’s a house, too. Because their ectothermic temperature-management strategies don’t work very well in the coldest weather, turtles go to ground in winter. Literally. The turtle’s shell then becomes his bedroom. Some turtles sleep the winter away in land burrows or under deep piles of brush and leaf litter, while others move in with muskrats. But most turtles simply dig down into the soft mud bottoms of ponds, where they go without taking a breath or eating a meal for as long as six months. (Maybe that’s why muskrats don’t seem to mind having turtles as house-guests. A guest who doesn’t eat is a rare find.) How is this possible? Hibernation. During his deep winter sleep, a turtle’s metabolism slows until his life hangs by the merest thread, sustained only by tiny amounts of oxygen absorbed through the skin. It’s a nifty trick.
Come spring, though, turtles return to life. The months between ice-out and high summer are…
The Turtles’ Busiest Time
Turtles have to accomplish a lot in a few short weeks, and this is when we paddlers have our best chance of seeing them going about their business. Patience is a must, and good binoculars are a big help. If you’re lucky, you’ll see a turtle having a meal. What do turtles eat? Well, they’re not fussy. In fact, they’ll eat just about anything they can get their beaks into. Turtles don’t have any teeth, but this doesn’t slow them down. They crush their food with the horny edges of their powerful jaws—this is the beak—then they use their muscular tongues to shove it down. It may not make for elegant table manners, but it can’t be equalled for efficiency.
After a few good meals, a turtle’s thoughts turn to love. Their breeding season extends into summer, and if you spend a lot of time peering into the shallows, you may get to see turtles court. They don’t waste much time on the dating game. Males compete for the girls’ attentions. It’s the females who make the first move, however, extending their front feet to clasp the front feet of their chosen mate. It’s a curiously touching gesture, but from then on the relationship is strictly business. A month or two later, the female is heavy with fertile eggs, and since turtles lay their eggs on land, she’s got an arduous—and dangerous—journey ahead of her. Nests are scooped out of the earth. The margins of woodland ponds, sand dunes, and silty flats are favorite spots, as are railway beds and (sadly) roadside fill. Sometimes a turtle will excavate several pits before finding the perfect spot. (These sterile nests may also serve as decoys, luring predators away from the real nest.) She digs with her hind feet, deposits her eggs, and then covers them over. After that, she starts the long trek back to her home waters, leaving her eggs behind to incubate in the sun-warmed earth. Despite her care, though, the eggs often fall early victim to raccoons and other hungry foragers. I recently found the remains of such a feast: leathery curls of white eggshell scattered around the shallow holes left by a skunk. That’s what you see in the picture on the right.
Still, no matter how many turtle eggs are lost to predators, enough survive to keep most species going. Some hatchlings remain underground till the following spring. Others start tunneling their way to freedom as soon as they break out of their shells in early fall. It’s The Great Escape all over again. Then it’s off on a cross-country ramble to find the nearest body of water. How they know where to go remains a mystery, and many perish along the way. Only a lucky few complete the journey.
These are long odds under the best of circumstances, but now turtles face another enemy, an enemy that millions of years of evolution haven’t prepared them for: our species. We humans drain the wetlands that they depend on, pave over their nesting sites, hunt them for food, dig up their eggs (they’re thought—incorrectly—to be aphrodisiacs), and capture them for the pet trade. But the worst threat of all is arguably our speeding cars. We celebrate life on the road in both story and song, but it’s a different story for turtles on the asphalt ribbon. For them, it’s…
Death on the Road
And it’s at its worst in late spring and early summer, as females trek out in search of suitable nesting spots. Few motorists even see the turtles they crush beneath their wheels. Since I’m often riding my bike along the highway, however, I can’t ignore the carnage. Turtles can’t outrun a car, and their usual reaction to danger—to hunker down, or, in the case of snappers, to turn and show fight—isn’t much use against a couple of tons of hurtling steel. The end result is everywhere to be seen in Canoe Country. If you look, that is.
What can we do? Well, we could all drive slower, I suppose, but I’m not holding my breath. Some folks do throttle back, however, even stopping their cars to help a turtle across the road before traffic takes its toll. On my bike, I’m always on the alert, and I’ve snatched many hard cases from the jaws of certain death. You’ll see a few of them in the photos on the left. It’s not quite as easy as it sounds, though. So if you’re inclined to lend a helping hand in the name of turtle transit, be prepared to follow a few simple guidelines. The question,
How Do You Help a Turtle Cross the Road?
Is best answered with one word: carefully. First and foremost, watch your own backside. Cars kill people, too, and you don’t want your name appearing among the million or so names of this year’s dead (40,000 plus in the US alone). Nighttime is an especially dangerous time. Rule #1, then, is pretty simple: Be careful out there.
What’s next? The devil’s in the details. Stop with the turtle in front of you if you can, so you can see oncoming traffic. Pull well off the highway. Put on your flashers. Now move the turtle out of the road. (Watch traffic at all times!) Which brings us to Rule #2: The turtle knows best. Help her go where she was originally headed. Don’t try to turn her around, and don’t take her to a “better” place—unless she’s headed over a cliff or into an asphalt wasteland, that is. In that case, carry her to the nearest safe spot on the side of the road where she was heading.
Rule #3? Handle with care. Although it was once widely recommended (by me, among others, I’m sorry to say), never lift a turtle—any turtle—by her tail! Doing so can cause irreversible spinal cord damage. Most turtles can simply be picked up and carried. Hold them close to the ground, in case they kick free, and don’t be surprised if you’re wee’d on. It’s a turtle’s way of saying, “Keep your hands to yourself, buddy!” Snappers deserve a bit more respect, however. Their formidable beaks can give a good bite, their necks can stretch waaay out, and their feet end in claws. Some folks have used snow shovels to lift and carry snappers to safety, but you can pick them up. You just need the right technique. According to turtle expert and wildlife rehabilitator Kathy Michell—whose New York Center for Turtle Rehabilitation and Conservation is a home away from home for many turtles who’ve lost battles with cars, yet lived to fight another day—snappers’ long necks extend furthest when they stretch forward, but they can reach up and back as well. So be very careful when stooping low over a snapper. Grasp the turtle just aft of midships, one hand on each side, between mid-body and tail. (This is a good way to hold any turtle, in fact.) Your grip should be firm, but not crushing. Now lift your charge and carry her across. Do not raise her more than a foot above the road surface, though. Why? Snappers can get big—twenty pounds or more. And they can kick. Hard. It doesn’t help to save a turtle from speeding cars only to drop her from shoulder height.
Not sure if you’re doing it right? This is one place where a picture really is worth a thousand words. Tom Michell’s photos show you how it’s done: