Why did the turtle cross the road ? Because that’s where he went last year.
- By Francis Skalicky Missouri Department of Conservation
Missourians will see many signs of a box turtle’s reliance on memory in the weeks ahead when people will observe turtles crossing roads throughout the region. These turtle treks don’t mesh well with our reliance on automobiles, as evidenced by the large number of turtles killed by vehicles each year. Before we get to the connection between turtle travels and turtle memory, here’s more about these interesting reptiles.
Eighteen species of turtles are found in Missouri. Although you’ll find various species crossing highways, the most common turtles you’ll see on area roads are the three-toed box turtle and ornate box turtle. Three-toed box turtles have plain, olive-brown colored shells and ornate box turtles dark shells with yellow streaks and spots. Young three-toed box turtles often have yellow markings on their shell, but their shell color becomes duller as they mature.
Three-toed box turtles prefer brushy edges of fields and oak-hickory forests interspersed with clearings while ornate box turtles tend to be more of a prairie and grassland species. Here in the southwest part of the state, both can be found with equal frequency.
Some box turtles crossing the road are looking for food or shelter. Others are males seeking mates. Whatever they’re looking for, one obvious characteristic of traveling box turtles is their dogged determination to cross traffic-filled highways in a specific direction, despite the fact that equally good habitat or mates might be in another and much safer direction.
And this brings us back to a box turtle’s powers of remembrance.
The primary navigational tool that guides a box turtle’s travels is memory. The seasonal ranges of box turtles are often quite small, sometimes as small as several acres. Box turtles instinctually familiarize themselves with various components of their range — where food is, where water is, where a good place to lay eggs is, etc. Then, throughout the course of a year, and succeeding years as well, they use their strong homing abilities to return to these locations as they need to.
It doesn’t matter if their routes cross automobile-filled roads or newly developed subdivisions; all turtles know is they have to get back to the spots they’re accustomed to using at this time of year.
For the most part, box turtles have little negative impact on humans and are merely creatures trying to live long enough to produce the next generation. If this has given you the urge to give a box turtle some road-crossing assistance the next time you see one on a highway, remember this:
• If you stop, do so at a location and in a manner that won’t endanger you, your vehicle or other traffic on the road.
• When you move a turtle, make sure you move it across the road in the direction it’s traveling. Because of its strong homing characteristics, if you set the turtle back in the direction from which it came, it will merely try to cross the road again.
Throughout the decades, a number of people have captured box turtles and tried to raise them as pets. Wild box turtles do much better in their natural surroundings than in captive settings, regardless of what you’ve read on the Internet. So, if you want to help a turtle cross a road, simply move it to the other side of the road and let it be what it was meant to be — a wild animal.
Information about the types of turtles in Missouri can be found in the Missouri Department of Conservation booklet “Missouri Turtles.” This free publication is found at a number of Department of Conservation offices. Turtle information also can be found at missouriconservation.org.
Francis Skalicky is the media specialist for the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Southwest Region. For information about conservation issues, call (417) 895-6880.