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Londonderry warns motorists to be cautious of vulnerable turtles

Londonderry warns motorists to be cautious of vulnerable turtles

LONDONDERRY — Deanna Mele has lived on Valley Street for more than 40 years, so when last summer came around she’d had enough.

Mele is an animal-lover who enjoys feeding the neighborhood birds and the other wildlife that inhabit nearby Little Cohas Marsh. One sight that regularly disturbed her was seeing turtle shells on the road, and the animal inside dead. It happened because some driver had run over the small reptile as it was walking on Hall Road near her home.

« It bothers me to see these turtles dead on the road, » she said. « Anytime I see them run over, it’s too much. »

Mele decided to call the town to see if something could be done. She eventually connected with Marge Baidos, who is chairman of the Conservation Commission, and asked if the group would look into putting up road signs warning people to be careful of turtles on the road. They did, and have arranged for four signs to go up — two on Hall Road and two on South Road, which is close to Kendall Pond and Beaver Brook — that announce, « Turtle Crossing. »

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Life in the slow lane 
Ray Carbone/Staff photoHere’s one of the new signs in Londonderry, asking motorists to watch out for turtles, on Hall Road.

Baidos is glad they’re there, but she’s still somewhat incredulous that people would need them.

« How can you run over a turtle? » She asked rhetorically. « It didn’t run out in front of you. »

But Mike Marchand, a wildlife biologist who works with the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department, says the warning signs are in the right area, and he knows they’re important — especially for species in the area like painted and snapping turtles.

« We have seven species of turtles in New Hampshire and four of those are of conservation concern, » he said.

That’s because not many turtles live to the point of being able to reproduce so every life is a valuable link in the continuation of the species.

And, right now, the biggest predator of turtles in the northeastern United States is a car.

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Life in the slow lane 
Courtesy/Michael Marchand Here, painted turtles bask on log. Painted turtles are plentiful in New Hampshire, but even one death can decimate a bale, or group of turtles.

Maybe it’s because they’re small when they’re young, Baidos speculates. Or, because a driver is too close to the vehicle in front, and doesn’t see it. « And then there are people who just aim for them, » she said.

Whatever the reason, it’s a tragedy, and an act that could lead to an « extinct » label eventually being tattooed on the hard-shelled animal, according to Marchand.

« Local populations of turtles start to decline after losing just a single individual turtle in a single year, » he noted. « So, if they lose one turtle every year even a robust population can disappear in just a few years. »

But why are the turtles, which are primarily amphibious creatures, walking around on the dry, hot pavement of a suburban road anyway?

« There’s a couple of scenarios that could be occurring,”  Marchand related. “One is they’re moving between wetlands, or they may choose to leave a wetland area or a pond for a variety of reasons. It could be a male looking for a female. Or it could be a pond is drying down – that pond may be suitable in the spring but if it dries up in the summer, they’ll look for something a little bit deeper.”

Another possibility is that the female moves out of the water to find a drier, sunny place to lay her eggs, usually in the late spring and early summer.

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Life in the slow lane 
Courtesy/Michael Marchand A painted turtle digs a nest to lay eggs. Most of those eggs will be eaten by predators.

“They have to lay their eggs on land, so once they reach that age, they have to leave the pond to find a well-drained, open area to lay their eggs, » Marchand said.

« There’s a sad irony to the fact that a female turtle could be killed by an inattentive driver. The eggs she’s risking her life to plant in a dry nest actually have very little chance of survival, even without the intrusion of man’s ‘iron horse,' » said turtle rehabilitator Chris Bogard of Epping.

« After the female has the offspring, she walks away, » she said, describing the reptile’s behavior. « They don’t get any kind of parental (interaction). »

But when the mother leaves, she also leaves her tiny, soft-shelled offspring to be easy prey for foxes, raccoons, skunks and other predators.

« The little baby turtle is about the size of a nipple, soft and squishy, » Bogard explained. « They dig them up and eat the eggs. A lot of turtles are (killed that way). The mortality rate for nesting and baby turtles is about 99-percent. »

Despite those long odds, turtles have survived largely because of their long lives — sometimes as long as a human being, Marchand said.

Most mammals live much shorter lives, and start reproducing much earlier, usually between one and two years.

But turtles don’t begin reproducing until they’re 5- to 7-years old — and some species, closer to 15 years, he said.

« A friend of mine has a way of saying it, » Bogard related. « ‘By the time a snapping turtle reaches reproductive maturity, more than 10 generations have passed for a deer.' »

« This is why one squashed turtle matters, » she added. « Even one dead turtle could be catastrophic to that population. »

Ray Carbone can be followed on Twitter @RayCarbone_ET.