Why did the turtle cross the road?

Why did the turtle cross the road?
John C. Lorson

June is prime time for snapping turtles to construct and fill their nests with eggs. This female snapper is taking full advantage of maximum overhead sunlight, which warms the surrounding soil (and pavement). That solar energy is entirely responsible for incubating her eggs. In eight to 18 weeks, the young will emerge to begin life entirely on their own.


I’m guessing it was 10 or 15 years ago, back when I was working for the university, dressing respectably and spending most of my days inside. This particular day was a good one in that I was out and about in the countryside, driving from a speaking engagement at a local high school to a meeting on the opposite side of the county. Any trip across Holmes County requires a crossing of the mighty Killbuck Creek as it makes its way from north to south. The Killbuck, for all its fickle, flood-prone nature is a stream bustling with life, and I don’t believe I’ve ever passed above it without looking down from the bridge and wondering what creatures might be lurking below.

I had done just exactly that and was just beyond the bridge, still in the midst of daydream of river otters and giant catfish, when I slammed on the brakes and skidded across the gravel to stop within a few feet of a gigantic snapping turtle standing smack in the middle of the road! Nature lover that I am, I hit my hazard lights and jumped out of the car, to help the “little lady” across the road.

I was in the very midst of the rescue with giant, agitated turtle in hand when a car full of the very boys I had just been speaking to a half-hour before drove by on their way home from school. They backed up, aimed a half dozen phone cameras at the guy in the button-down shirt and necktie carry a 25-pound turtle across the road, and sped off laughing. I’ve been saving turtles with almost shocking regularity since that time.

Folks often ask me why turtles cross the road. While I don’t have a particular answer for why they may be crossing, I do know why they come to the road in the first place, and that is to lay eggs.

The vast majority of the snapping turtles and painted turtles you see on or along the roadway are females looking for a choice spot with ample sunlight and a gravely well-drained patch of earth in which to dig a hole. Few things in nature compare to the well-constructed limestone or gravel berm of a roadway, railroad embankment or rail trail in that regard. Last week I witnessed four separate, larger-than-a-pie-pan snapping turtles in various stages of the egg laying process in a single day along a mile long stretch of the Holmes County Trail. Snapping turtles lay eggs from May through September, but June is the peak of the season.

Taking 8 to 12 years to reach reproductive age, snapping turtles have paid a lot of dues along the way. Thankfully, with an average lifespan of 20-50 years there’s often a fair amount of time to perpetuate the species once that age has been reached. Without going into graphic detail about what typically happens in the water, I’ll skip right to the roadside where mama turtle uses her long claws to scoop out a hole about 5 to 7 inches deep into which she lays 8 to 83 eggs. She covers the nest with the spoil from her excavation and goes on with her life, leaving the sunshine and heat-retaining stone and pavement to do the incubating.

Temperature plays an amazing role in the development of the turtle embryo. In a phenomenon called temperature-dependent sex determination, eggs that are incubated below 81.86 degrees and above 87.8 are nearly always female. Between those two extremes male offspring are produced. Temperature also determines the length of time required for the young to hatch — a range that runs from 8 to 18 weeks.

Sadly, many young snapping turtles never see the light of day, as nest predation by common culprits like raccoon, fox and mink can range as high at 70-100 percent in some areas. Ground disturbance left from momma turtle’s excavation is a dead giveaway to passing predators. One of those nests I saw being filled with eggs in the morning last week had already been looted by the time I made my trip home in the afternoon.

Fortunately, while we may only occasionally see snapping turtles (mostly because they don’t bask in the sun like the painted turtles we so often see lined up head to tail on logs and shorelines) they are very common throughout our area. That being said, it never hurts to stop and help one out of the roadway — unless of course you get too close to its head. Then it’ll hurt plenty. I prefer to scoot them along with a stick or pick them up by the base of the tail with the plastron (or the underside) of the turtle facing me. Whatever the method, please be careful and mindful of traffic.

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