It’s a familiar sight in University City: a box turtle slowly and deliberately crossing the road on her way to a destination only she knows.
While walking through Autumnwood early one morning last week, we helped a turtle cross the road on a curvy stretch of Rockland above Toby Creek that’s dangerous for pedestrians and wildlife alike.
Sadly, it wasn’t enough. The next day, we discovered her shattered body by the edge of the pavement. She had almost made it to the safety of the woods before a careless driver took her life.
The Cherokee called members of her clan “Grandmother,” and their legends say a turtle supports the whole Earth on her broad and steady back.
The box turtle is still honored today as the official State Reptile of North Carolina. Unfortunately, this venerated ancient resident of the Carolinas, like countless other wild creatures, is now increasingly threatened by roads and cars.
Michael Dorcas a noted herpetologist at Davidson College, recently made national headlines with his research on Burmese pythons in the Florida Everglades. He has been working closer to home on a long-term project to better understand box turtles.
“They face a lot of threats, but they are still a ubiquitous part of our natural heritage,” Dorcas said. With the exception of the very centers of urban downtowns, he reports, box turtles live just about everywhere in North Carolina.
Dorcas said it is not a good idea to take a box turtle home, or move it to a less trafficked area such as a large park or out in the country. Instead, the best way to help a turtle on a road is to pick it up and carry it across in the direction it is going, then release it out of the traffic lanes.
He cautioned rescuers to be careful about their own safety on busy roads.
Dorcas said box turtles establish relatively small (football field-sized) territories, which they come to know very well over a lifespan that can last a half-century or more. Using radio tracking, Dorcas and his students found that box turtles that were moved to an unfamiliar area tended to “essentially wander around and end up dying.”
Railroad tracks also pose an unexpected danger. Turtles can become trapped between rails, Dorcas found, where the risk is not so much being hit as being cooked alive in the hot sun. In the current hot weather, a turtle caught on an open rail line may survive for only a couple of hours.
Box turtles are on the move in University City throughout the warm months. In mid-summer, they may be most active in the morning after rains, when the day is cool. In the spring, females are out looking for a nest; in the fall, males are out looking for females. In the winter, they tend to hunker down and become inactive.
After mothers lay eggs in the spring, scent lingers for a few days, attracting predators such as raccoons or dogs. Dorcas suggested that if you see a turtle laying her eggs, temporarily cover the area with chicken wire to discourage digging. After three weeks or so, remove the chicken wire so hatchlings can emerge without problems in the late summer or fall.
The Eastern box turtle, Terrapene carolina carolina, is native to University City. They average about 5 inches long. According to Davidson College’s box turtle web pages, they will eat “almost anything, animal or plant, that they can fit in their mouth.”
They prefer wooded areas with lots of underbrush, but they can survive in a wide range of habitats. They are called box turtles because of their hinged shells, which enable them to withdraw inside a “box” of solid bone impenetrable by predator fangs and claws.
Unfortunately, the shell is little protection against an automobile.
Traffic is major danger to all wildlife, not just box turtles. A study by the U.S. Department of Transportation estimated that between 1 million and 2 million collisions take place annually in the U.S. involving motor vehicles and wildlife.
Wrecks involving larger animals can be fatal to both wildlife and humans: A collision with a moose has the same risk of injury or death as a collision with another vehicle.
The report’s recommendations to address that problem, such as fences and wildlife overpasses, aren’t of much help to box turtles and other small wildlife. Fortunately, Dorcas said, most people don’t want to hit turtles. The best solution is driving more slowly and carefully.
He also thinks habitat preservation is a key part of the solution.
“We need large, less fragmented tracts of land,” he said. “Ecologically, that’s much better than having long, skinny strips. People like greenways. Unfortunately, animals don’t know to stay there. Even in the middle of a greenway, the impact from urbanization will be very evident.”
What’s worse for wildlife: invasive species such as the pythons Dorcas studied in the Everglades, or traffic and roads in our car-centric society?
“It’s really hard to say. It depends on the species,” Dorcas said. “Both are major issues, and both are ways we have screwed things up for wildlife.”
Dorcas does have some succinct and timely advice about another reptile now active in University City, the copperhead: “Leave it alone!”
Copperheads are fairly common in our area, and this time of year are active mostly at night, Dorcas said. They are easily mistaken for other harmless snakes, and it makes no sense to kill every snake you encounter.
The best preventive measures are to watch your step in the evening, wear sturdy shoes, use a flashlight and watch where you put your hands and feet.
“Unfortunately, this is one of the risks we have in this area,” Dorcas said. “Bites are not deadly for most healthy people, but they hurt a lot and you’ll feel pretty awful. If you are bitten, get to a hospital immediately, where they will be able to help you.”