Why Did the Turtle Cross the Road? And What YOU Can Do!

By Jordan Gray

It’s that time! Here in the Northern Hemisphere, the days are getting longer, the temperature’s getting warmer, and turtles are on the move. Sadly, though, their travels can be full of peril. From lawnmowers to iron rails, and concrete curbs to roadways, a litany of obstacles—some deadly—lie in their way. Roads, in particular, have become a common aspect of the landscape as our human reach ever expands. So what makes turtles step onto asphalt, a seemingly foreign substance, and continue onward? Well, the answer to that eternal question—and solutions—can be more complex than one may think.

A male Ornate Box Turtle (Terrapene ornata) steps out onto the asphalt of a road. Turtle road crossings are typically more common during morning hours or after a rainfall. Photo: Jordan Gray

Turtles have lived on Earth a long time, a very long time. The first ancestor to the turtles we know today appeared about 260 million years ago during the Permian Period. Its name: Eunotosaurus. While the Eunotosaurus must have faced many threats, roads and automobiles were certainly not one of them. Fast forward 140 million years to the Cretaceous Period, when the earliest evidence of modern-day turtles was recorded and, still, roads and automobiles did not pose an existential threat. It wouldn’t be for another 120 million years that these objects of peril would enter their world. In fact, it was just over 100 years ago that rubber first met road, changing the fates of turtles the world over.

Throughout the world, turtle deaths on roads have become an all-too-common sight. From seasoned adults to hatchlings, staggering numbers of turtles are lost annually to road mortality. For many turtle populations, their long-term existence is directly correlated with the count of those killed on roads each year and the numbers of hatchlings they must recruit into the population to offset those lost. In many cases, turtles simply cannot reproduce fast enough or in large enough quantities to mitigate the number of reproductive adults lost. This is when a population trends toward extinction.

Female Diamondback Terrapins (Malaclemys terrapin) are commonly encountered on coastal roads and causeways of the eastern United States as they search for nesting sites during late spring and summer. Photo: Jordan Gray

“Why do turtles enter roads, and what should we do?” you ask? It boils down to this: road crossings are tied to basic individual and population survival needs, directed by evolutionary instincts. For an individual to survive, it requires the basic necessities of food, water, and shelter. For the population to survive, those individuals must not only survive, but reproduce successfully. Out of necessity, movements are made by turtles to fulfill these individual and population needs. And—depending on the individual turtle or turtle population—road encounters may be a regular part of their annual cycle, an occasional or rare occurrence, or a first-time interaction. No matter the reason or the frequency, each encounter can be deadly. Right now, especially, female turtles are disproportionately subject to road encounters as they seek out nesting grounds to lay their eggs. This puts both the females and the next generation of turtles in jeopardy. However, armed with the right knowledge, you can help decrease these deadly encounters.

Female turtles, like this Blanding’s Turtle (Emydoidea blandingii), will often use road shoulders to nest. Photo: Andrew Badje

Home Ranges

First, it’s important to understand that turtles occupy a home range that has been established since the time it was a hatchling. This home range should, under natural conditions, provide the turtle and its population with the basic necessities for survival. The home range of a turtle can vary incredibly depending on the species, environmental and population dynamics, and the individual turtle itself. For example, in any given population of Eastern Box Turtles (Terrapene carolina carolina)—a widely distributed and commonly known species from the Eastern United States—individual turtle home-ranges can vary markedly. One adult turtle may have a home range of less than an acre, while another’s may be 50 acres or more. And then there are turtles that may wander outside of their “normal” home ranges in search of basic necessities, to lay their eggs, or spread their genes. No matter the case, home ranges are important to turtles, and are important to understanding what YOU should do when encountering a turtle on the road.

Though their home ranges contrast markedly in size, in 1989, these two Eastern Box Turtles (Terrapene carolina) would be subject to few encounters with roads or other human threats. Graphic: Jordan Gray
In 2021, the same two Eastern Box Turtles would be subject to a litany of human threats. With its larger home range, Turtle 1 is potentially at greater risk of a road encounter. Graphic: Jordan Gray

So now you know turtles occupy home ranges, have needs, may travel, and those travels may bring them in contact with a road. Still, what do you do? Let’s present a basic scenario in which you are driving down a road, see a dark shape lumbering across the asphalt ahead, slow down, and see it’s a turtle. We say basic here, because every roadway and turtle encounter presents its own set of circumstances, and actions must take those variables into consideration.

Safety First!

If you’re a turtle lover like us, upon seeing a turtle in the road your adrenaline will start to rush. That’s your innate fight or flight response mechanism kicking in—and in this case, to fight for the turtle. The first thing you should do is brake, right? Wrong. Although we love and want to help every turtle that has found itself on one of our passages of doom, your safety and the safety of other motorists always comes first. Slamming the brakes for a hapless turtle could lead to a traffic collision. If you see a turtle crossing the road and are inclined to help, put on your emergency lights and safely and slowly pull onto the shoulder of the road, into a safety median, or other safe space.

Keeping a brightly colored, reflective safety vest in your automobile during the warm season is recommended if, like us, you’re inclined to assist turtles across the road. Safety first! Photo: Mary Landers

Next, jump out of your automobile and run and get the turtle, right? Wrong again. You must fight your emotional instinct to help the turtle with the logical one of self-preservation. Roads are deadly for turtles. Roads are also deadly for humans. Once safely pulled over, and with emergency lights on, look in all directions to ensure a safe rescue-attempt is available for you and other motorists before exiting the automobile. Once you have safely exited the automobile, retrieve the turtle only when it is safe to do so. Yes, there are a lot of safety issues involved.

So now you’re out of your auto and are about to save that turtle’s life but…there’s still oncoming traffic. As tempting as it may be to dart in front of traffic or, with hands held high, let your inner crossing guard come out, these actions, too, could lead to a collision and injury or loss of human life. More often than not, other motorists will not immediately recognize that you are trying to help a turtle to safety. Be as patient as you can, all the while focusing on the turtle and your surroundings.

One Direction

Finally, it’s safe to enter the road. With a firm grasp, pick up the turtle (if it’s a hard-to-handle species see below) and continue walking in the same direction. Why? Two reasons: 1) it is quicker to continue your forward motion and arrive safely on the other side of the road, and 2) that’s the direction the turtle was heading! Now, it’s time to let the turtle continue on its way.

In most scenarios, turtles, like this Eastern Box Turtle, should be assisted in the direction they were heading. Photo: Jordan Gray

When a turtle is released after a road rescue, the simplest logic to follow is that the turtle was heading in that direction, so you are merely assisting it. Remember, turtles have home-ranges, and/or are moving in a certain direction based on some instinct-based need. In most scenarios, allow their instinct to supersede your logic. Though the place it came from may look like better habitat, or that park down the street seem like a tranquil setting, or the idea that your backyard with its protective fencing will keep it safe forever, disregard these thoughts. If returned to its origin, it may simply try to cross again. If taken to that tranquil park, now you have not only taken it out of its home-range, but you have removed it from its population that so desperately relies on it for survival. If kept as a backyard or aquarium pet, you may have “saved” it from the road, but it’s just as dead to the wild population as if it had been hit by a car. Simply place the turtle in habitat in the direction it was heading and wish it good luck. You are not the keeper of that turtle’s destiny, but you were there at the right time and place to help it live another day, year, or more!

The best possible outcome in a road-rescue scenario is for the turtle to be safely released into habitat in the direction it was heading. Photo: Jordan Gray

Seek Help!

The scenario depicted above represents a best-case-scenario. There are many turtle-crossing scenarios in which alternative actions must be made. From the “habitat” on the other side of the road being a mini-mall, to the turtle being injured or a hard-to-handle species, to road-mortality being so great that your community wants to install wildlife barriers and tunnels, some scenarios require assistance. This is where your local wildlife center, exotic veterinarian, police department, Department of Transportation, or the Turtle Survival Alliance comes in.

Installation of turtle crossing signs, like this one in Georgia, can be helpful in alerting motorists to hot spots and peak annual movements of turtles.
When properly installed, fencing and tunnels, like this one in Ontario, Canada, can have a profoundly positive impact for turtles and other road-crossing wildlife. Photo: Marc Dupuis-Desormeaux

If you’re interested in learning more, have specific questions, or find yourself in a turtle road-rescue scenario in which you require assistance, contact Jordan Gray at jgray@turtlesurvival.org AND info@turtlesurvival.org. Additionally, join us for Why Did the Turtle Cross the Road? And What YOU Can Do! a TSA webinar, Tuesday, June 8, 2021, at 8 PM Eastern Standard Time. CLICK HERE TO REGISTER!

And remember, keep wild turtles wild!

4 Comments

  1. Sue Duncan on June 1, 2021 at 10:14 pm

    Excellent. I did it the wrong way for years until i read a natgo article that said what you all are saying. I’ve rescued 21 from the road in 18 years and heart sick that I did it wrong but feel good about doing it correctly these days. I love turtles and always will.

  2. Candy Federl on June 2, 2021 at 12:05 pm

    31 years ago my son and I rescued a baby Eastern Box turtle from the road. That long ago we did not know any better and took him home. I was in my 30s then and my son was three. We still have that turtle!! I’m in my 60s and my son is now in his 30s! We would never do that again but we have given our turtle a wonderful life. He has an elaborate large habitat ( his own room) with land and water features. We feed him live insects, worms and fish and he is very active. He now lives with my son and his children. Part of the family. He’ll probably outlive me so my son is teaching my grandson how to care for our turtle. Next time I see a turtle in the road I’ll take him to the side he was moving towards. But we have sure loved our little guy, sweetest turtle in the world!

  3. Donald Schultz on June 2, 2021 at 12:11 pm

    Not only the road but the trail in the Wayne National Forest. Lots of fast quads and dirt bikes. Two years ago I continued 9 across the trail.. and 6 or 7 across road way’s
    .

  4. Jo Erickson on June 9, 2021 at 9:10 pm

    Recently, I stopped car safely; picked up a turtle I felt would be run over; went home; put it in the backyard; went inside & made preparations to, hopefully, keep him as a pet. I was ever so briefly inside my home; went back outside, and he had disappeared — not to be seen again. Don’t underestimate the speed of a turtle! when he wants to move! I should have simply moved him carefully off the road in the direction he was going. Should have heeded your advice to let a wild turtle be wild. However, I do love turtles!

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