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Why turtles are crossing the road

A Texas river cooter turtle lays her eggs in the flowerbed of a Meadowlakes home. Cooter turtles get their name from the African word kuta, which means turtle. In Texas, these are the most common turtles seen on rivers and streams as they are quite fond of basking in the sun. Staff photo by Jennifer Greenwell

June is a peak nesting month for Texas turtles, a time when turtle mothers-to-be head out in search of the perfect place to lay their eggs. One tell-tale sign is an increased number of turtles attempting to cross the road. In the Highland Lakes, those intrepid turtles are typically box, map, sliders, cooters, soft-shells, snapping, mud, and musk.

Female turtles will sometimes travel a mile or more to find the perfect spot to nest. Although turtles spend much of their time in the water, eggs must be laid on land to hatch.

Nest location criteria can be tricky in an increasingly developed landscape. Mainly, the spot needs to be well-hidden while also in situated in good sunlight. Once mama turtle deems a location acceptable, she digs a hole and deposits anywhere from four to 20 eggs. She then covers them with soil.

Unlike birds, turtles don’t stick around to see their babies born. Without a guardian, a large number of turtle eggs fall victim to predators such as snakes, raccoons, skunks, vultures, and even humans.

Baby turtles emerge from their shells after a two- to three-month incubation period. They are born with a temporary egg tooth used to break free of the shell. This event uses up a lot of energy and can take about 20 minutes.

A hatchling’s first meal is its egg sac. Some babies remain with the nest until spring, while others leave in the fall. Typically, when ready to leave the nest, the babies head for water in a group, counting on safety in numbers.

Turtles are built for long lives. Not only are they slow, they grow slow, which allows them to age differently than mammals. Smaller species of turtles in the wild often live 20-40 years. Larger species can survive beyond that.

Longevity can be cut short by hungry predators. A turtle’s natural defense mechanisms include retracting into the shell, escaping (although they are fairly slow), voiding (urinating), hissing, vocalization, biting, musk, and burrowing. In addition to predators, turtles often become victims of vehicles on the roadway — especially during mating and nesting seasons.

You can help turtle populations live a long, healthy life by following these simple tips:

  • Only assist a turtle crossing the road if it is safe to do so. Watch for traffic!
  • When it's necessary to pick up a turtle, place one hand on each side of its shell midway between the front and back legs. Beware: Some turtles will void or hiss when scared. Snapping turtles might try to bite. It’s best not to pick up one of these.
  • Don’t handle the turtle longer than needed as it causes stress.
  • Move it off the road in the direction it is heading.
  • Don’t relocate the turtle away from its home territory.
  • Never keep a wild turtle as a pet.
  • If you find a turtle nest on your property, the best protection is to cover it with a wire cage or basket to keep out predators while allowing sunlight to reach the nest. This also allows hatchlings to emerge when ready. If the nest is in a location that will not be periodically checked, it’s best to leave it alone.

TURTLE FUN FACTS

  • Turtles are the oldest reptile group in the world, dating back over 200 million years. They have hardly changed in that time.
  • The shell is part of its skeleton; it cannot come out of its shell.
  • The world’s oldest-known turtle lived to age 188 on the island of Tonga.
  • 129 of about 300 turtle species are endangered or nearly endangered.
  • Slider turtles get their name from their ability to make a quick getaway — sliding off of rocks and logs into the water.
  • Native Americans considered turtles sacred and did not kill them.
  • For many turtles, the temperature of nest/eggs determines the sex of babies. Cooler equals male, while warmer equals female.
  • Turtles do not have vocal cords but make sounds by expelling air from their lungs. Sounds can be clicks, chirps, clucks, or hisses and are usually made when a turtle is threatened or mating.
  • Red-eared sliders are known to chirp when they are bored.
  • Some freshwater turtle species communicate with nestmates from inside the eggs so they can hatch around the same time.

jgreenwell@thepicayune.com

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