Saving turtles, one by one…

“You should be able to push him from behind,” said the other motorist, who had also seen the young snapping turtle sitting in the middle of the exressway right after I did and pulled up as I was taking some “pre-rescue” pictures. “Nyeah, I think I’ll go ahead and get something to push him with anyway,” I said, hoping that the tone of my voice did not betray my true thoughts, “What, are you crazy? I’m not putting my bare fingers or sandal-clad feet anywhere near that thing!” I’ve rescued plenty of snappers over the years, and I know first hand just how surprisingly quick they can be. Truth be told, snapping turtles can be safely moved by hand – apparently they cannot reach the back of or underneath their shell. However, it takes considerably more temerity than I possess to actually try this. I grabbed a bicycle pump from the back of the truck and hooked the base of it under its shell. Immediately, the young turtle snapped at the pump – startling the man as well as two other cyclists who had stopped to watch the goings on. I admit to feeling more than a little vindicated as they all stepped back a few steps. I was hoping the turtle would maintain his grip on the pump so I could just carry him over to the roadbank, but every time I tried to lift he let go. So I had to just keep hooking the pump under his shell and pulling him towards the side of the road – the turtle fought every bit of the way, hissing and snapping and clawing against the road. At last he was in the grass – it was then an easy matter to roll him over a few times down the bank and safely (for now) away from the road.

Road mortality is suspected to have contributed to widespread population declines in turtles across the United States. This seems especially true for freshwater aquatic species, which often make land migrations for breeding. Vehicles often do not stop for turtles in the road, and I have seen some (usually a pickup truck with very large tires) swerve deliberately in an attempt to hit them (or even more sadistically, “shoot” them across the roadway). Conincident with these declines has been a demographic change towards male-biased populations in many freshwater species. Adult female freshwater turtles make nesting migrations that males do not and are often attracted to road shoulders and embankments as nesting habitat, making them disproportionately more vulnerable to road mortality. The resulting male-biasing surely represents an additional risk factor to their populations, especially in areas where high traffic occurs in proximity to wetlands. In such places, mitigation measures such as barriers and wildlife underpasses are clearly warranted (Steen et al. 2006).

I’ve always been a little awed by snappers – so grizzled and ancient, almost dinosaurian, and while I doubt that my sporadic rescues have near as much impact as barriers or underpasses, I do know that they cannot possibly hurt. As for this turtle, whether it continued on its way or turned around and crawled back onto the road (due to my unwittingly placing it on the side from which it just came) will remain unknown. I was heartened to see that I wasn’t the only person who stopped, intent on saving this grotesquely beautiful creature. But as I scanned this miles-long stretch of very recently constructed roadway, which now enables St. Louis countians to rapidly zip along next to newly created wetlands in the Missouri River bottoms while avoiding the stop-and-go on I-270, I couldn’t help but wonder why barriers and underpasses, seemingly simple protective measures, weren’t also included on the final blueprints of the roadway before they were sent to the printers. If such had been done, then I would not have had this encounter. But I could’ve lived with that.

About Ted C. MacRae

Ted C. MacRae is a research entomologist by vocation and beetle taxonomist by avocation. Areas of expertise in the latter include worldwide jewel beetles (Buprestidae) and North American longhorned beetles (Cerambycidae). More recent work has focused on North American tiger beetles (Cicindelidae) and their distribution, ecology, and conservation.
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10 Responses to Saving turtles, one by one…

  1. Marvin says:

    I don’t blame you in the slightest for not handling the snapper directly. I have great affection for all ten of my fingers.

    I know this is purely anecdotal, but it doesn’t seem as if I see nearly as many common box turtles as I did just a few years ago.

    Kudos for your rescue, especially on a busy St. Louis roadway.

  2. Amy says:

    Nice Cicindellid in the header. They’ve got to be one of my favorite beetles to catch.

  3. Anonymous says:

    So, yes, Missouri is seeing a serious population crash in our three toeds, linked directly to auto mortality. Snappers are really noble, actually. If you grab them by the tail, they can’t reach around. Oh, they fight, but they can’t bite. Alligator snappers, however, *can* reach to their tail. Have you ever met Matthew Aresco (Lake Jackson turtle mortality study). A researcher who provides proof that one guy can affect change.
    By the way, I’ve checked on the status of your research permit and it should be in the mail by Monday. Sorry JC turns into a black hole sometimes…it’s really not me. allison

  4. Ted M. says:

    It’s like handling a wasp-mimicking insect – you “know” it can’t hurt you, but it’s still hard to grab it. Except in that case if you make a mistake you don’t lose a finger!

    Your comment prompted me to read about Matthew and his Lake Jackson study – wow! The sad thing is, with the amount of work and effort to document the problem there’s still no solution. Makes you ‘almost’ wish some listed species would turn up there – that would do it.

    Hey, thanks for checking up on the permit – I just get a little nervous when survey activities are scheduled to begin in a few weeks and the permit is still not in hand.

    btw – thanks so much for your continued kind comments. We should start our own mutual admiration club! I’ve finished reading your entire blog archive, and now I’m going through “Ozark Highlands…” withdrawal. I love your style, the initimate blend of passion and intelligence. It is I who feels small – which is hard since I weigh twice as much as you!

  5. Clay says:

    A friend recently found what he estimated to be a 50-60 pound snapper on the road next to his office complex. He and another passerby stopped to move it off of the road and it promptly snapped the other fellow’s 2 inch thick walking stick in half (I guess there is no such thing as turtle herding). Finally, my friend grabbed it and put it into a pond close by. They are fantastic animals and I can’t help but stop anytime I see any type of reptile stranded in a busy roadway.

    Thanks for caring enough to save it.

  6. Mary says:

    Enjoyed your tutle rescue story and thank you for the answer about dragons and damsels that you left me on Tom’s blog.

  7. Texas Travelers says:

    Ok, one more quick comment. Martha says I have moved more turtles (and other stuff) off the road than Bayer has aspirins.

    Great post and I enjoyed the comments.

    I really do have to go do “Fathers Day” Stuff now.

    Troy

  8. Olivia (Hiking Backpacks) says:

    I rescued a snapper while running on a road that wound through a marsh. Thing is, I didn’t know what a snapping turtle was at the time🙂 He was really big, and I lifted him up by the sides. Boy was I in for a surprise when he almost bit off my nose! I ended up setting him back down (not very gently, unfortunately). Then I went and got a stick and got him to bite on. I dragged him to safety using the stick. They are such amazing creatures aren’t they? 🙂

  9. David Steen says:

    Just noticed this post, thanks for bringing attention to what I think is an important issue….and thanks for the article plug!

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