Season of the Snapping Turtle

Snapping Turtles are on the move, and sometimes those movements take these lumbering giants across yards and roads, especially when on their egg-laying missions. This is that time! I know that for a fact since I had the pleasure of assisting a roadside snapping turtle just last week. Another car stopped as well when they noticed me kneeling next to the turtle. I needed close-up photos thus the roadside kneeling. A gentleman and his young son got out to watch and warned me it might bite. I acknowledged that and showed them the proper way to move the turtle when they asked if I was going to carry it by its tail. Carrying by the tail would most likely seriously injure the turtle.

We’ve all heard the old joke, “Why did the turtle cross the road?” The two most common answers are “To get to the other side,” or “To get to the shell station.” With Shell gas stations few and far between the other side is the correct answer, but the question remains — why did the turtle cross the road? The answer is rather simple, roads often bisect turtle habitats.

My first incident of helping a snapping turtle cross a road occurred over three decades ago in the City of Bloomfield Hills and it was on none other than busy multilane Woodward Avenue near Long Lake Road. So, why did the turtle cross the road? Most likely the turtle was simply heading out on a mission to find a sunny spot with good soil to lay her eggs. The road was in the way, so the road needed to be crossed and cars are not something turtles comprehend. But, back to the story.

I had noticed traffic slowing down and changing lanes on Woodward Avenue and a patrol car parked on Woodward with its emergency beacons rotating. I moved over a lane and slowed down. As I passed by the scene, I recognized that the public safety officer was a friend of mine, but I could not quite figure out what he was doing with a broom in his hand until I saw the snapping turtle in the high-speed lane near the median. I realized he was trying to shoo the turtle to safety. I pulled over, and he quickly accepted my offer of assistance. Fact check: Turtles do not respond to voice commands, especially “Shoo!” We ended up using a broom that came off a Department of Public Safety fire truck to partially block traffic. Working together, we not so gently prodded the behemoth creature into a cardboard box for relocation. Mission accomplished. However, Sgt. Wilson gifted the turtle to me, and I transported it to a more secluded lakeshore a few miles away with hopes it would not climb out of the box en route.

From that day on, I have remained “friends” with snapping turtles and make every effort when it is safe to pull over to assist a snapping turtle that’s venturing onto a roadway or meandering around a parking lot with curious onlookers gathering. I’ve already helped a neighbor this year when he called me to say a “monstrous turtle” was digging next to his freshly planted tomato plants and I quote, “I’m not going to touch that thing.” I guessed correctly it would be a snapping turtle and it was, and a very large one at that.

Snapping turtles may live several decades and can get very big. After taking a few photos, I took my neighbor’s trespassing turtle to the wetland that abuts my property and wished her well in her new habitat. Why do I use the female gender? The turtle was digging in the soft garden earth and that told me it was an egg-laying mission.   

My turtle encounters usually happens a few times a year and almost always in mid to late May when turtles are laying eggs. Last June, while working on South Manitou Island with the National Park Service, we prodded off a very large snapping turtle that was digging a hole in the middle of the road for her egg-laying mission. That would not be a good place for the eggs. 

Unfortunately for turtles, they have no comprehension that vehicles are a danger and when suddenly feeling vulnerable, they usually make a fatal move and stop moving. Unlike most turtles, snapping turtles cannot retreat into their shells and even if they could a turtle shell is no protection for a two-ton vehicle.

As an advocate for all turtles you might say I function a bit like a crossing guard for these road-venturing turtles. In wetland-rich Oakland County many rural roads, especially in the northern section of the county, meander around our lakes. The road embankments are ideal egg-laying habitats for these creatures that are little changed since dinosaurs left the scene. As a matter of fact, a bit of online research from the Berkshire Museum revealed this eye-catching fact. “The family of snapping turtles, Chelydridae, first evolved around 90 million years ago and survived the mass extinction that killed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. In comparison, humans have evolved much more recently and anatomically modern homo sapiens (us) have existed for less than 300,000 years.”

When a painted turtle is spotted on or alongside the roadside and is about to cross, it’s an act of kindness to pick it up and carry it across the road. With a snapping turtle, it’s not so easy and for those with no knowledge of their behavior, it can be rather risky to the turtle and the human rescuer. When an often algae-coated adult female snapping turtle lumbers out of her often-murky pond or other wetland give her room and stay out of the way. She’s on a mission. Want to help a snapping turtle cross the road? Here are some great tips from the Canadian Wildlife Federation:

Jonathan Schechter is the nature education writer for Oakland County Government and blogs about nature’s way on the Wilder Side of Oakland County.

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