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June 2012
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Aquatic turtles going overland are on mission

By Steve Vantreese

We can't speak for the chicken, but a turtle crosses the road for a purpose much more pointed than just getting to the other side.

Nowadays, it's common to see aquatic turtles â “ animals that live in water â “ plodding across highways, marching over the lawn or making their way across someone's north 40. Presently, turtles are traveling overland, sometimes far from a river, pond, lake, creek or slough in which you'd think they belong.

Some turtles will make occasional sojourns across land to find new habitat. It's even speculated that snapping turtles are territorial to the extent that their home range may include two or three water sources.

Yet, during spring and early summer, lady turtles of various species shuffle from their watery homes to make inland deposits. These females, fertilized by daddy turtles in reproductive rites this spring, are seeking places to lay eggs.

Routinely encountered in our region are mother turtles of a few aquatic species â “ common snapping turtles, red-eared sliders and the occasional painted turtle, map turtle or river cooter. Snappers and sliders represent the bulk of them.

Common snapping turtles are prehistoric critters â “ around since the age of the dinosaurs â “ that may grow to a shell length of 18 inches or so. Long-necked and long-tailed, however, snappers are bigger than what their shells will enclose, so they've long developed aggressive defensive behavior to protect themselves.

The name snapping turtle is well chosen. They lack teeth, but a snapper's hard, hooked beak is sharp and strong enough to remove parts of adversaries that come too close to its front end. A nasty attitude and brutal jaws leave the adult snapping turtle none too vulnerable.

A red-eared slider, on the other hand, is a smaller, more retreating turtle. A grown adult is more like a foot long, and the slider can rely more on retreating inside its shell to find shelter from aggressors. It's fast in water and probably faster on land than you might imagine. The slider isn't as ill-tempered, although it might be folly to offer one an unprotected finger.

The fertilized females of both of these common aquatic turtles go through a similar quest at nesting time. They leave their watery homes and trek to a site with moderately soft, damp soil in which to nest.

The site chosen only needs to be above flooding elevation, thus turtles may depart the water and go only a few feet up the bank from their home. Still, it's common for egg-laden turtles to take a pretty good hike to find a place that suits them. That explains turtles showing up in places that seem far from their water habitats.

It may be quite a stretch from home. It is reputed that female snapping turtles have traveled as far as 10 miles to establish a nest site. This seems crazy extreme, but such a turtle trek makes a jaunt of a mere few hundred yards sound easily do-able.

All the species of mother turtles find a likely spot and then put their backsides where they want the nest. The turtle uses her back legs and clawed feet to dig a few inches into the soil, perhaps half a foot, and form a cavity. With her rear already poised over the opening, she deposits the eggs.

The lady may squirt out anywhere from 20 to 50 round, white eggs. Both snapping turtle and red-eared slider eggs are close to the size of a ping pong ball.

After laying the eggs, the turtle roughly covers over the deposit with the loose dirt. And that concludes her motherly chores.

Perhaps surprising, a mother turtle has no incubating duties and certainly no tending of the young. She lays and covers the eggs, and then she sashays back to her home waters. Unless the youngsters arrive at the same place on their own weeks later, a mother turtle never sees her own hatchlings.

Typically, the covered and abandoned eggs lie in the ground and hatch merely from the modest warmth of soil temperature in late summer. Tiny turtles, miniatures about one inch long, fight their way out of the leathery shells and dig themselves out to the surface of the soil some two or three months after the eggs are laid.

Biologists say turtles that lay eggs in late season produce youngsters that may stay in the shells through the next fall and winter, hatching only with the warmth of the following spring.

Turtle hatchlings leaving a nest have a perilous chore before them. They follow instinct and head for water. They aren't fast and they face hazards on the way, whether it's a journey of 50 yards or a half-mile. Raccoons, 'possums, skunks, herons, crows, snakes â “ all sorts of varmints ingest bite-size turtles.

Most turtle hatchlings don't make it. That's why so many eggs are laid, and it also balances out with the long-lived tendency of adult turtles, which may survive 20 to 30 years, maybe longer.

A turtle doesn't need to add many to the next generation, but each survivor is up against long odds. For that reason, give turtles a fighting chance when they cross the road in front of you or meander through the lawn. They're out there on serious business in hostile territory.

Steve Vantreese, a freelance outdoors writer, can be contacted at outdoors@paducahsun.com.

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