Many of us have seen turtles on the road in May and June – they look like dark, round speed bumps or tire pieces. Perhaps you have swerved your car around one, or stopped to help one safely across the road. Why are roads such a major threat to turtle survival and how can you help?
Turtles evolved as a species long before cars were invented, so they don’t naturally know about vehicles and the danger they present.
Biologists believe that turtles can live to over 100 years old, which means there may be individuals living today that were born before motor vehicles first appeared in Canada! Turtles are slow-moving and lack the sharp eyesight that helps other animals recognize the danger of a car moving at high speeds.
With the odds stacked against them, why do turtles cross the road?
Turtles encounter roads on their search for a mate or nesting site during spring and summer. The sand and gravel on the roadside is ideal for digging and laying their eggs in.
On the Bruce Peninsula, researchers Tricia Stinnissen and Jim Schaefer, discovered turtles were often on the road when those roads were within 1 km of a wetland. In southern Ontario, there are over 35,000 kilometres of roads. No matter where you stand, a road will be no more than 1.5 kilometers away.
Throughout their lifetime, turtles face a variety of threats that are not limited to road mortality; these reptiles are also constrained by habitat loss, poaching and increased predation by skunks and raccoons. Anything we can do to reduce turtle road mortality will help Ontario’s turtle populations.
What you can do to help:
1. Be on the lookout for turtles while driving Learn to identify turtles on the road. They often look like oil slicks or bumps. If you see a turtle on the road, slow down and give it a wide berth when passing. You can also turn on your hazard lights to alert other motorists to its presence.
2. If you see a turtle on the road consider helping it: If it is safe to do so, help the turtle cross in the direction it is traveling by placing your hands on the underside (plastron) and topside (carapace) of its shell. To help snapping turtles, watch this video by the Toronto Zoo on how to move a snapping turtle safely. If the turtle is traveling and the road is not busy, walk beside or behind it until it reaches the other side.
Helping a turtle that is digging or nesting on the roadside could take a while. Pull your car over, turn the hazard lights on and wait. Do not try to move the turtle or scare it off. If you have a safety kit in your car, place a traffic cone or other marker near the turtle and come back for it later. Make sure to observe nesting turtles from a safe distance (15+ m) to avoid disturbing them.
3. Report turtles you see on the road: Use the new Ontario Reptile and Amphibian App to report turtles, snakes, frogs and salamanders you find on the road, alive or dead. You can report sightings of other species to the Ontario Road Ecology Group.
Data from the Ontario Reptile and Amphibian Atlas is used by many provincial and municipal groups to inform the placement of eco-passages or signs to help animals safely cross roads.
4. Sign up to be a turtle taxi: The Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre (OTCC) in Peterborough has a network of volunteers called Turtle Taxis that help transport injured turtles to the OTCC. Turtle Taxis also help release rehabilitated turtles and turtles that hatched at the centre from eggs retrieved from injured females. If you find an injured turtle, call the OTCC helpline for assistance. (Call: 705-741-5000).
All of these are great ways to help turtles during the active season. And truthfully, you feel pretty amazing when you help one.
Tanya Pulfer is Ontario Nature’s Conservation Science Manager.