CHATHAM – Every spring, calls come in to the town's animal control department about turtles crossing roads – or worse yet, getting struck and killed by cars as they attempt to cross. Those calls almost always refer to the same locations year after year.
“They have it hardwired into their brains where they want to go and breed and feed,” said Animal Control Officer Diane Byers. “Sometimes they're just sitting there and sometimes they're crossing.”
Drivers may have noticed a number of “Turtle Crossing” signs that have gone up along several local roads in the past few weeks. These are at strategic spots – Old Queen Anne Road at the fishermen's landing and near Perch Pond, Main Street just past Agway – where turtles have been known to cross, usually in search of a sandy spot to lay their eggs. Usually that's near the shore of a freshwater pond or cranberry bog, said Robert Prescott, director of the Mass Audubon's Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary.
“That inevitably puts them on a road,” he said, sometimes with fatal consequences.
Signs similar to those in Chatham are posted in Wellfleet and other Cape towns, said Prescott. The Chatham signs were installed by a local resident, who did not want to be identified, with the unofficial consent of Byers. “It's still a little early” in the season for turtles to be on the move, Prescott said, but the signs provide a good warning to drivers who will begin seeing the first painted and snapping turtles looking to nest in a week or two. Box turtles will be along a bit later in the season.
The signs were put up in the hopes that drivers would slow down and watch for turtles crossing in those specific areas. Prescott and Byers said a driver willing to stop and help a turtle in the road, or on the side of the road about to cross, should pick up the animal and move it to the side of the road in the direction it was heading. Don't move it back where it was or bring it to another location.
“No matter where you move them they're going to walk back to their neighborhood,” Prescott.
Doing so is not only important to the survival of the individual turtle but to the species. Prescott said 80 to 90 percent of hatched turtles are eaten by predators. Those that survive take eight to nine years to reach breeding age. A female getting hit and killed is a blow to an entire species.
“Being careful and not hitting turtles is really, really important,” he said. While there are no data on local turtle populations, snapping and painted turtle populations seem to be health, Prescott said, but others, such as eastern musk (or stinkpot), spotted and eastern box turtles, are not doing well locally. There is a population of eastern box turtles, whose conservation status is listed as vulnerable, near the Brewster-Harwich line, he said, as well as at the Isabel Smith Conservation Area in Harwich.
When traffic stops, someone always seems willing to pick up and move most species of turtle, except snapping turtles, which can be intimidating and can inflict severe bites. Byers has special equipment that she uses to move these animals, and Prescott suggested gently sliding the blade of a snow shovel underneath one and carrying it to the side of the road.
“They don't seem to object to that,” he said. Byers said the majority of turtles she sees hit by cars are snapping turtles. They are usually larger than the other species and are not always killed when hit. “Sometimes they can be rehabilitated,” she said, even if the shell is cracked. Anyone who sees a turtle that has been struck by a car can call her at 508-945-5111; she usually takes injured turtles to Wild Care in Eastham.
Other turtle species are harmless and folks shouldn't be concerned about picking one up, said Prescott. “You're not going to get any turtle diseases,” he said. “They're reptiles so they're not going to transmit anything to us.”
Prescott urged anyone with questions to call the Wellfleet Bay Sanctuary's turtle hotline – 508-349-2615, extension 6104 – with questions. Sanctuary staff can provide guidance if homeowners fine turtles nesting in their yards as well. If you're unsure of the species, take a photo and email it to firstname.lastname@example.org.