Why did the turtle cross the road?

Turtles interrupted my bike ride twice this Memorial Day. I see them in the road and I’m compelled to throw my bike down along the shoulder and transport them to safety. I’m sure this behavior looks a little strange to passing motorists, but I know for a fact that there are other turtle guardians out there. Once you know what to look for, it’s not hard to spot females traveling to and from their nesting grounds at this time of the year. Painted turtles, which are common, and Blanding’s turtles, which are threatened, look like large, smooth rocks from a distance until you notice that they’re moving. Snapping turtles, on the other hand, look just like big ol’ snapping turtles in the road. Minnesota turtles are on the decline due to habitat loss, water pollution and being killed by cars, so helping them cross safely during the nesting season really isn’t as silly as it looks. Here is some information to help you get started:

Painted turtles on the road look like large, smooth rocks from a distance.

Painted and map turtles: The painted turtle is the most common turtle in Minnesota and a common sight on sunny days when dozens will bask on logs, rocks and snags in ponds, lakes and slow moving rivers. Common and false map turtles are also found in our area on the Mississippi and St. Croix Rivers. They too will bask on snags and fallen trees, but they are much more wary of people.  If you are ever out canoeing and suspect you see a map turtle, approach very slowly and quietly. If one dives, they’ll all dive and if any remain, they are usually painted turtles.

If you see a painted turtle crossing the road, please help it across. Presuming that it is safe to cross the road yourself (no helping on freeways!) and that you’ve looked both ways for traffic, simply pick the turtle up and move it in the direction that it is traveling, which is not necessarily toward the water. This is important because turtles know where they are going and will turn around and march right back into traffic if you return them to the side of the road they came from. Be forewarned that turtles pee when they are scared, so you would be wise to hold them away from your body. Also, it might go without saying, but wash your hands before eating after carrying a turtle!

Snapping turtles are unmistakable. Use a towel or gloves to help them across.

Snapping turtles: Although snapping turtles are quite common in Minnesota, they have been listed as a species of special concern by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources due to concerns about over-trapping and the effects of water pollution. A 1983 study showed that snapping turtles found in the Mississippi River south of St. Paul had high levels of PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) in their body fat, liver, muscle tissue, and eggs, a problem that also affects fish along this stretch of the river. Although they have a bad reputation, snapping turtles are generally peaceful creatures that will avoid humans unless provoked. Many people incorrectly blame them for killing game fish and waterfowl, but in fact, mammals, birds and larger fish are more often to blame.

If you see a snapper in the road, carry it carefully by the rear of its shell, or both rear legs, with the head facing away from your body. I’ve been scratched by more than one snapping turtle, so I would recommend wearing gloves or using an old towel for these gals. Keep in mind that the snapper you save could well be older than you!

Blanding's turtles will travel up to a mile to their nests. The species is considered threatened.

Blanding’s turtle: The Blanding’s turtle is a threatened species in Minnesota.  They’ve lost vital upland and wetland habitat to development and farming, and many females are killed by cars while traveling to lay eggs in the spring. Blanding’s turtles live in ponds, marshes, shrub swamps, bogs, and ditches and streams with slow-moving water but will also travel up to a mile away from the water’s edge to lay their eggs. They prefer calm, shallow water bodies with muddy bottoms and lots of lilies and aquatic plants; large marshes bordering the Mississippi and St. Croix Rivers are ideal. They also frequent small temporary wetlands that dry up in the late summer or fall.  In other words, if you can’t fish, swim or boat in it, a Blanding’s turtle would probably love to live there.

Help Blanding’s turtles across the road the same way you would with a painted turtle. If you find one nesting on your property, do not disturb the nest. You can, however, lend a helping hand to protect the eggs from predation by covering the nest with chicken wire secured to the ground with stakes or rocks. Don’t worry about nests that are more than one week old, since they have already lost their scent and be sure to remove the fencing before August 1 so that the young turtles can escape when they hatch! Last, but not least, maintain or restore natural vegetation along wetlands and lakeshore on your property so that turtles and other wildlife have a place to live.

Softshell turtles stick to the rivers but are threatened by human use of the beaches they use for nesting.

Softshell turtles: A final set of turtles that call our area home are the smooth and spiny softshell turtles, which prefer large rivers with sandy bottoms like the Mississippi and Lower St. Croix. Smooth softshell turtles have declined in recent years due to river channelization, siltation, and water pollution. You won’t find them crossing the roads, but you can still help them by taking care of the islands and beaches along the St. Croix River where softshell turtles nest. Litter and food debris like apple cores and corn cobs can attract turtle egg predators like raccoons and skunks, so be sure to leave your riverside camp and picnic areas as clean (or cleaner) than you found them.

Learn more about turtles in Minnesota at www.dnr.state.mn.us/reptiles_amphibians/turtles.