Wanderlust and warmth put box turtles at risk this time of year. Conservation officials urge motorists to spare them safely.
JEFFERSON CITY--Highway safety officials urge motorists to "drive defensively," keeping an eye on other drivers to avoid accidents. The Missouri Department of Conservation suggests that motorists also watch for box turtles, especially this time of year.
Missouri has two species of box turtles. The three-toed box turtle is primarily a woodland species and is found everywhere but the extreme northern part of the state. The ornate box turtle is found in all but the southeastern corner of the state, but is more adapted to grassland and is most common in western Missouri. Three-toed box turtles usually have three toes on each hind foot, while ornate box turtles usually have four toes per hind foot and bear more prominent designs on the tops and bottoms of their shells. From a speeding automobile, the two are indistinguishable.
Conservation Department herpetologist Tom Johnson is less interested in teaching people to distinguish turtle species than he is in helping them compensate for the hard-shelled creatures' self-destructive habits. Box turtles and several other turtle species often venture onto highway pavement to bask in the sun. Sunning is a biological imperative this time of year, when turtles need solar energy to raise their body temperatures enough to digest their food efficiently.
Sex also puts box turtles in harm's way. Spring is their mating season, and males in search of mates are especially mobile this time of year. Their wanderings inevitably take them across highways.
The combination of plodding turtles and fast-moving vehicles often proves deadly for turtles. Johnson says thousands of turtles die in encounters with cars each year. This could eventually cause problems for long-lived species like box turtles. They don't begin reproducing until six or seven years of age, and predators claim many of their eggs and young.
Johnson says box turtles aren't endangered in Missouri, but he worries about the species' long-term welfare. "We don't have much information about historic numbers of box turtles or population trends over the years as we do for some other species," says Johnson. "But it stands to reason that as cars and highways become more numerous we might reach a point where automotive mortality could cause numbers of these harmless creatures to decline."
While box turtles might not be high-profile species in terms of economic value, Johnson says they are an integral part of Missouri's natural world. "It's as hard to calculate the ecological importance of animals like box turtles as it is to put a dollar value on their aesthetic value. As long as humans have lived here, there have been turtles for children to discover and wonder over. A world without them certainly would be poorer for their absence."
Johnson suggests that Missouri drivers do what they can safely to avoid hitting box turtles. A turtle's life isn't worth the risk of swerving wildly or veering suddenly in traffic. But if you keep turtles in mind and watch for them, it's usually possible to steer clear of them without risk to human safety. If you see one turtle, keep your eyes peeled for more. Good turtle habitat may have populations of up to 10 or more turtles per acre.
Those attempting to aid turtles also should do so cautiously. Don't stop on or near the road to help a turtle cross a highway. If you do move one, take it in the direction it was headed when you found it. Put it at least 15 feet off of and headed away from the road to reduce the chance it will wander back into danger.
Trying to help a turtle by adopting it isn't a good idea. Turtles have specific diet and habitat needs that are difficult to meet. Captive turtles seldom are healthy.
To learn more about box turtles and the other 15 turtle species found in Missouri, write to "Missouri's Turtles," Missouri Department of Conservation, P.O. Box 180, Jefferson City, MO 65102-0180.
- Arleasha Mays -
Provided by: Missouri Conservation Department.
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