Friday, July 06, 2012
Meet the turtle types that call SML home
Why did the turtle cross the road? The same reason the chicken did, I suppose.
I cannot remember when I started helping turtles cross the road; it has been several decades. One of the first times was shortly after my mother died. I saw a turtle on the Blue Ridge Parkway. I turned around and pulled off of the road near the turtle only to hear a loud breaking noise.
The vehicle behind me had run over my slow friend. What I saw from my car window was a mess and provoked a lot of tears.
Since then, whenever it is safe to do so, I pull over and help any turtle I see cross the road, always taking it in the direction it is heading.
Turtles are persistent. No matter how far off the road you take them, if you do not take them in the direction they want to go, they will head back to where you found them and eventually cross the road.
Most of the time, it is easy to move an Eastern box turtle. In May, I found it not so easy when I met an Eastern snapping turtle. I was surprised at how long his legs and neck were. Weighing in around 20 pounds, when I nudged "him" with my foot, he dug in with his long sharp claws and raised "his" shell with his accordion-like legs more than six inches off the road.
"Most likely it was a her, because they are very aquatic and they come out of the water to nest," said David Perry, Virginia Herpetological Society volunteer. "Sometimes they will travel a great distance to do that."
The average weight for a snapping turtle is 10 to 35 pounds, and they tend to be about 8-14 inches long. The record weight for an Eastern snapping turtle is 75 pounds.
If you try to move one, do not grab it by the sides. A turtle's neck is quite long and the turtle can reach around and bite you. Grabbing it by the tail is painful for the turtle because it is a part of its spine.
Lauri Schular, the nature interpreter at Smith Mountain Lake State Park, recommended grabbing the shell behind the neck and above the tail and holding it away from you. These turtles have long claws and spikes on their tails. Mike Clifford, Virginia Herpetological Society Education Committee chairman, said my idea of getting underneath it with a shovel was a good one as well.
"Most of the turtles in our area are water turtles," said Clifford, "The only one that spends a lot of time on land is the box turtle. The others also spend some time on land, but spend most of their time is in the water."
Eastern snapping turtles lay eggs in the ground or in debris that is easy for them to dig into and create a hole for their eggs. The number of eggs they lay depends on the size of the turtle. Typically, it is 25 eggs per clutch, but they can lay as few as 10 or as many as 83, Perry said. These turtles reach sexual maturity around 6 to 10 years of age.
While they may lay many eggs, few hatch because raccoon, skunks and some snakes enjoy making a meal of their eggs. The gender of baby snapping turtles and other turtle species is determined by the temperature of the eggs during a particular stage of development.
Studies have shown that temperatures of 58 degrees produce females. Temperatures of 73 degrees produced all males. At 77 degrees, all females were produced again. The temperature within a natural nest can vary, so a clutch can produce mixed-gender babies.
"There's really not a way to tell how old a live turtle is," said Clifford. "Old for a snapping turtle in the wild is about 30 years old."
Box turtles can live more than 100 years. The average life span in the wild is 50 years. Nesting occurs between late May and late July, with two to 12 eggs laid in one clutch, Clifford said.
"Unlike the snapping turtle, the box turtle is not tied to the water, and they'll roam to an area where there won't be such a concentration of nest predators," said Clifford.
Virginia Wildlife Action Plan rates box turtles as a Tier III, which means there is a high conservation need and extinction is possible. Clifford said this is true in more populated areas. In rural areas you will have a better chance at seeing a box turtle.
Turtles are omnivores so they will eat both plants and animal species. They have not changed since the dawn of civilization.
According to "Animal Speak, The Spiritual & Magical Powers of Creatures Great & Small" by Ted Andrews, ancient mythology is riddled with stories of turtles as a symbol of awakening to heighten sensibilities, longevity and Mother Earth.