June is “Turtles-Crossing-the-Road” month. Let’s celebrate by driving cautiously on roads near wetlands while being alert to female turtles heading to their upland nesting sites. Notice which roads seem suitable before you encounter an “object” on the road. Slow down. If you see a turtle in the line of traffic, assist the animal to cross (in her chosen direction) only if it is safe and necessary. Invite some friends to join you in vigilance. For added fun, visit some potential nesting areas and keep your eyes peeled. Massachusetts turtles nest in sunny, well-drained spots where the soil is easy to dig. If you, and I, and a whole lot of other people pay attention this month, there will be cause for real celebration: a good crop of baby turtles whose mothers survive another year.
Young Painted, April 12, 2023, Pembroke
Snapping Turtle Hatchling, Hanson, August 22, 2021
I feign a lighthearted tone in an attempt to conceal worry and frustration. If you read this blog, you already know that wildlife populations are plummeting, with many species in trouble. Unfortunately, turtles are suffering greater declines than most. According to the BioScience article, “Where Have All the Turtles Gone, and Why Does It Matter?”, 61% of turtle species worldwide “are threatened or already extinct.” “Turtles are among the most threatened of the major groups of vertebrates, in general, more so than birds, mammals, fishes or even the much besieged amphibians.” All Massachusetts’s sea turtles and more than half of its aquatic/terrestrial species are protected under state or federal law.
Habitat loss and pollution impact countless animal species, but turtles face additional challenges that put them at greater risk. One problem is that they are cute enough to be captured and sold in the pet trade. Their slow movements on land make them easy targets for collectors, hunters, and motor vehicles. Their need to travel between “home base” and nesting sites exposes them to more danger. Moreover, turtle egg predators – such as raccoons, skunks, and foxes – have adapted well to human neighborhoods.
Combined, these devastating hurdles undermine the turtle’s principal survival strategy: produce many eggs throughout a long life to ensure that a few young survive. Most eggs and hatchlings die; they always have. Indeed, they are an significant part of the food chain. On the other hand, each time an adult is “removed” from the population, its entire reproductive life is lost. Roadkill destroys future turtles.
Painted Turtle Laying Eggs, June 27, 2021
Interestingly, the BioScience article cited above delves into the ecological significance of turtles in their environments and suggests what has been lost as turtle populations have declined. Their impacts include seed dispersal, improved soil quality, nutrient cycling through scavenging, and more. While it may difficult for us to imagine, turtles can (and have) achieved high population densities.
“The highest accepted biomass for an aquatic turtle is 877 kilograms per hectare (kg per ha; Congdon et al. 1986) for pond slider turtles (Trachemys scripta), a species that can have as many as 2200 individuals per hectare in some habitats (DeGregorio et al. 2012).”
Just imagine . . . 1933 pounds of turtle living in a 2 ½ acre pond! I wish abundant turtles for us all.
Painted Turtles Basking, April 12, 2023, Pembroke
Read more about the natural history of our most common species by visiting these earlier posts:
July 1, 2022: “Painted Turtle”
July 2, 2021: “Snapping Turtle”