Why did the turtle cross the road?

Why did the turtle cross the road?
A few days ago, while driving around the Park, I slowed down for what I thought was just another bump in the oh-so-bumpy New Orleans roads. But unlike most bumps and potholes, this one slowly moved as I approached.  I pulled to the side and stepped out of the car to find a small turtle, moseying across the street, seemingly unaware of the oncoming car.
Afraid she might not make it to the other side of the street before another car came along, I carefully picked up the turtle, helped her to the side of the road, and then went on my way. But as the day continued, I found myself questioning: Why did the turtle cross the road? Where was she trying to go? Had I put her on the right side of the street, closer to her final destination? Or had I accidentally undone hours of arduous trekking, leaving her back at the starting line?

With a little research, I found that turtles, unlike the subject of many “chicken crossing the road” jokes, aren’t just trying to get to the other side. They have a destination and know the way.

Even City Park’s turtles, who spend most of their time in the water, begin over land travel in late spring and early summer, as the females search for suitable nesting sites. While reproductive behavior for each turtle species varies slightly, courtship and mating usually takes place between March and July. Females of some species will mate with several males during this time and store the sperm to fertilize a later clutch of eggs. After mating, the female spends extra time basking in the sun, keeping her eggs warm. Females may wait days or even weeks before egg-laying. When she is ready, the female wanders away from the water to find her nesting site. Although each species may have specific requirements for nesting (distance from water, type of soil, obstacles, or good coverage), all females take the time to ensure the best protection for their young, even if it means crossing a highly trafficked road. Once she has found her spot, the female digs a hole using her hind legs, lays the eggs, and then makes her way back to the water.

Red-eared slider, Trachemys scripta elegans

Red-eared slider, Trachemys scripta elegans

Incubation time of the eggs ranges widely, depending on both the temperature and the depth of the nest, but usually falls between 50-100 days. Temperature of incubation also determines the sex of turtles. Females are produced at warmer temperatures, whereas males develop at cooler temperatures. At the end of incubation, the hatchlings break open the eggs with an egg tooth, a small tooth that falls out shortly after. Attached to the young turtle is a small yolk sac, which provides nourishment to the turtle for the first few days of life before it is absorbed into the turtle’s belly. After about 20-30 days, the turtles are big enough to swim and begin making their way to the water.
So back to that original question: Why did the turtle cross the road? She wasn’t struck by wanderlust or out for some grand adventure. She was simply thick-shelled and determined to find the perfect nest for her babies.
So as you are out enjoying the park, slow down and keep your eyes open for traveling turtles. And look down every now and then (especially around Scout Island!) and see if you come across any recently hatched turtle eggs!

Recently-hatched turtle eggs.  Unlike bird, which lay hard-shelled eggs, turtles and other reptiles lay soft-shelled eggs.

Recently-hatched turtle eggs. Unlike bird, which lay hard-shelled eggs, turtles and other reptiles lay soft-shelled eggs.

If you happen to see a turtle crossing the road, feel free to help it to the other side, but remember that the turtle is not lost. Move the turtle in the direction you found him/her traveling in, and don’t worry about bringing him/her back to a nearby waterway. If you are going to lend a turtle a helping hand, be advised that turtles often empty their bladder when picked up. Be ready and try not to drop them. If you are unsure of what you should do, a good rule of thumb for handling wildlife is always “If you care, leave it there.”

Written by:
Johanna Gundlach
Sustainability Coordinator
jgundlach@nocp.org