One may not know it, but the beautiful state of Wisconsin currently has 11 different species of turtles that call our state home, and they may be found living in our ponds, lakes, rivers and streams, marshes, roadside ditches, and other wetlands, and even in some cases, our drier, upland prairies, savannahs, and surrounding fields. Turtles, tortoises, and terrapins are a very old group of reptiles which all belong to the order of reptiles known as Testudines, and have remained relatively unchanged over the course of millions of years. They have been able to survive for this long without human assistance or intervention, have survived several mass extinction events over the course of their history, and even predate the dinosaurs and many other prehistoric creatures.
When it comes to our species in Wisconsin, the common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) and painted turtle (Chrysemys picta) are perhaps the most common and widespread species, but our state is also home to several threatened, endangered, or otherwise protected species as well including the Ornate Box Turtle (Terrapene ornata ornata), the North American Wood Turtle (Glyptemys insculpta), and the Blanding’s Turtle (Emydoidea blandingii). Today, unfortunately, many of our native turtle species, and even local populations are, and have been threatened by, and are declining, due to many human activities that oftentimes come into conflict with these amazingly unique reptiles, and it is estimated by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), that about 75% of all turtle, tortoise, and terrapin species worldwide are threatened, endangered, or critically endangered, making these reptiles among the most imperiled species. Every year from the months of mid to late May, through June, and into early July, their reproductive movements and behaviors are especially hit hard by the threats they face, including habitat destruction, loss, and fragmentation, overcollection and overexploitation, and road and human induced mortality. Even more threats also include nest and adult turtle predation, and emerging wildlife diseases affecting many reptiles and amphibians worldwide.
Fortunately, citizens, government agencies, and conservationists alike have come to recognize these threats that our native turtles face, and have implemented many different local, state, and even national initiatives and education outreach aimed at better protecting turtles and raising public awareness towards them. And these efforts have been seeing success in recent years as since 2012 when state of Wisconsin turtle conservation projects were initiated, more than 1,300 citizens from across the state have reported nearly 3,000 additional turtle sightings, 1,300 turtle road crossing hotspots, and 38 sites where turtles have been identified to have been suffering high road mortality rates (Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Weekly News, May 28th 2018). Another underpass construction project for turtles and other wildlife in central Wisconsin near Stevens Point has furthermore seen a reduction in road mortality of 85% or more.
Late spring and early summer are especially precarious times for turtles especially as gravid, or pregnant, females make their treks over land as much as a mile or more from the nearest wetland or water source in search of gravelly or sandy, sunny, and open nesting sites in which to dig their nests and lay their eggs. However, this is where you, the citizen scientist can help out our native turtles, and other reptiles and amphibians, by remembering these following tips and information regarding these ancient shelled reptiles during this time of year.
Wisconsin Turtle Crossing Information:
-During the months of May, June, and July especially, remember to slow down and watch for turtles on or near roadways in and around wetlands.
-If you see a turtle on or near the road, attempt to avoid hitting it if possible. If you are able to, pull adequately off of the road to help the turtle across the road, but only if, and/or when it is safe to do so and traffic conditions allow. Always be aware of other traffic and your surroundings when attempting to move any animal across the road. Alternatively, if there is little to no traffic, the turtle can simply be allowed to continue moving across the road on its own unassisted.
-When moving a turtle across the road or to another area, always place the turtle in the direction it was facing or heading. Turtles, and many other reptiles and amphibians are very instinctual, and will often seek out and return to the same nesting areas each year. If placed in the opposite direction, they may still attempt to reach the areas they were originally intending to head towards, thereby placing themselves in potential danger again.
-Always keep potential nesting and reproductive and dispersal habits and behavior in mind if a turtle is encountered in an unlikely or otherwise dangerous area. If a turtle, or other reptile or amphibian needs to be relocated away from an area for any reason, always be sure to do so towards the next nearest body of water or other suitable habitat. Relocating them too far away from where they were originally found can be disorienting for them, and if the animal in question is a gravid female seeking a nesting site, or is otherwise an animal coming to or from a hibernaculum site which they regularly go to every year, they may simply attempt to go back to these areas in which they were found. Reducing the potential spread of emerging wildlife diseases from one population to another, among many other reasons are also reasons to keep in mind. Relocation is usually less of an issue with males, non-gravid animals, or juvenile animals which may be dispersing from one area to another to find suitable food and habitat, or for other reasons, but should still be kept in mind. Generally, they should not be relocated further than necessary, or within a ½ to 1 mile of where they were found if possible.
-While most of Wisconsin’s turtles are relatively small and non-aggressive, any animal with a mouth has the potential to bite when threatened. They may also urinate, hiss, or display other defensive behaviors, however. Most of Wisconsin’s turtles can be picked up, handled, and moved across the road or to another area by placing each hand and thumbs on each side of the shell between the fore-and hind limbs (i.e. like a sandwich), or they can be firmly gripped from behind the shell between the hind legs and tail with one or both hands depending on the size of the turtle. The latter option can reduce the likelihood of being kicked or scratched, however.
-Use additional care and caution when handling and moving large and/or potentially aggressive turtles such as softshell and snapping turtles. These turtles can have surprisingly long necks and quick reflexes as well. Depending on the size of the turtle, they may be gripped with one or both hands along the rear margins of their shell between their hind legs, or can be supported with one hand underneath their bodies and plastrons (under portions of their shells). A long shovel or other similar tools can also be used to scoop up and move large turtles from underneath to be moved close to the ground. Do not handle or lift them up by their tails alone, as this can damage their vertebral columns and cause injury to them.
-Resist the temptation to “rescue” or take home any wild turtle or other reptile or amphibian as a pet. Some species, such as the Ornate box turtle, Blanding’s Turtle, and Wood Turtle mentioned previously are state protected, threatened, or endangered species, and taking them home may be illegal and subject to heavy fines or prosecution. All native Wisconsin reptile and amphibian species are regulated by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, and even common and widespread species require an annual fishing, hunting, or small game license in order to collect and possess them.
-Even when and where it is legal to do so, taking home a wild reptile or amphibian home often isn’t a good idea for several reasons. Most of our native species have very specific temperature, environmental, dietary, and other requirements that may be difficult to meet in captivity, and many species have relatively long lifespans and may be difficult to rehome later on if the need arises. As such, they oftentimes do not make good pets. There are many local, reputable sources in which to acquire a well-established captive bred and born reptile or amphibian if interested in one of these animals as a pet.
-If you find a wild or native turtle that is suspected to be injured, sick, or otherwise in need of veterinary assistance or human intervention, contact your area’s wildlife rescue and rehabilitation organization provided in the WDNR link below. Oftentimes, these organizations are able to better provide professional veterinary and other services dealing with native turtles and other wildlife. http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/wildlifehabitat/directory.html
-Hatchling and turtle nest predation and mortality is also a significant conservation concerns in many areas. Raccoons, Opossums, skunks, and even many birds will all frequently dig up and/or eat turtle eggs and hatchlings with frequency. If concerned about the status of a known or observed turtle nest, a wire mesh cage or netting can be placed over and around the nest to discourage predation, while still allowing hatchlings to pass through upon hatching. If a turtle nest or nest of hatchlings is accidentally or incidentally discovered or dug up, and is facing imminent destruction, your local or area wildlife rescue and rehabilitation organization linked below are usually the best bets for incubating the eggs and caring for the hatchlings. Headstarting programs, where turtles are hatched and raised in captivity to the point where the turtles reach sizes large enough to where predation becomes less of a threat are also often utilized, but typically require a higher degree of coordination and approval by public and private educational, research, nonprofit, and/or governmental institutions.
-If interested in getting turtle, or other herptile road crossing signs installed in any particular area, there are often ways of accomplishing this, although there are a few legal and technical requirements which would need to be met. Local and state Departments of Transportation (DOTs) and other public road and highway maintenance agencies, as well as the respective local, municipal, or county governments in which turtle crossing and/or road mortality hotspots have been identified are usually the means of oversight for these signage concerns. For those not already familiar with local grassroots activism and the local legislative process pertaining to the passage of bills, ordinances, and resolutions, further step by step information can be provided upon request. Private roads and lands usually have fewer to no legal requirements for installation of such road crossing signs, but should only be installed with cooperation and permission from the landowner.
-Learn about and become involved with the many local, state, and even national citizen science programs and initiatives designed to help Wisconsin’s native turtles and other reptile and amphibian species. The Madison Area Herpetological Society, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Turtle Conservation Program, Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin, and other local and state conservation organizations need YOUR help in becoming a turtle spotter, and in identifying turtle crossing hotspots throughout the state and Midwest. More information about these resources, and how you can get involved, can be found at the links below: http://wiatri.net/inventory/witurtles/