Box turtle

The pokey eastern box turtle makes road crossings more dangerous by pulling inside its shell and “hiding” right in harm’s way when threatened by traffic.

June is prime time for a turtle to cross the road, and it’s not just to get to the other side.

This stretch of late spring into early summer is when a high percentage of turtles both terrestrial and aquatic are on the move, especially females looking for appropriate places to lay eggs to seed the next generation of their kind.

Males turtles of various species may be looking for new territory, and there are even some that still will be in mating mode and seeking out available female partners. Some aquatic species will change habitats, moving from one wetland to another by going overland for reasons we might not grasp.

We mainly experience these footloose turtles when they encounter and traverse roadways during these encounters. It is a particularly perilous crossing for turtles, because nature did not equip them very well for dealing with motor vehicles.

Aquatic turtles like red-eared sliders and common snappers can be deceptively quick in short bursts on land, but that is relative to turtle quickness. They lack the speed of practically all mammals, and they clearly lack awareness and understanding of traffic flow.

Turtles don’t look both ways, then dash across the road. Their turtle-tardiness and their cluelessness about highways and streets put them at high risk.

The worst perils are endured by our prominent terrestrial hardshell, the eastern box turtle. The box turtle by its very nature puts itself in harm’s way by crossing the roadway, then almost seems to ask for destruction by staying on the asphalt if it encounters any threatening traffic.

The box turtle is that little creature with the helmet-shaped shell that so many people have taken in as a pet. They grow to about 6 inches long and about 4 inches wide. They are pokey slow and docile.

Box turtles, unlike “wilder” aquatic species, seem almost friendly. They typically will not bite even if handled. Spend some time around one and it will become accustomed to people and tame even more so.

What box turtles will do initially around people — and passing vehicles — is hide in place. This species had a hinged belly plate, the plastron, that allows the turtle to pull in its head and legs and close tightly. When a possible threat appears, it retracts and slams the door.

For an adult box turtle that is more than a mouthful for most species, hiding inside the shell is an effective defense for typical predators that come along. Yet, it has the opposite effect in protecting itself from automobiles. Instead of ambling across the road safely, the spooked box turtle pulls inward and “hides,” she thinks, right where her danger is greatest.

Vehicle hazards are a primary reason why this species is much declined from the abundance it had in days of fewer roadways and lighter traffic. Combined with all those taken for pets and general habitat loss from human developments, box turtles are becoming a species of concern.

We can help box turtles and aquatic species, too, by cutting them a break on the roads. I’ve seen people go out of their way to run over crossing turtles, and I have little hope for such folks. At the very least, drivers can dodge and avoid squashery whenever it is safe.

When it doesn’t create a vehicle traffic hazard, a good-hearted thing to do is to stop and help the hard-shelled pedestrian cross the road. Box turtles benefit most from this, but always put the turtle where it was headed instead of the side from which is was coming or it will just try it again. They know where they want to go.

Don’t capture a box turtle and take it down the highway to release in a safer place. A boxer may live its entire life in an area of two or three acres, and it typically has a strong homing instinct. Haul it way down the road and it may kill itself trying to trek back, exposing itself to more predators and many more traffic crossings.

Because they are in decline, resist any urge to take a box turtle as a pet, even for a day or two. Again, removing it will trigger the turtle’s inner GPS and it will try to go back where it began. And keeping it forever, however well cared for it might be, removes it from the wild breeding population where it is needed.

Some of the same needs and concerns for box turtles also apply to other species, the aquatic sorts. These aren’t as geographically limited and are faster afoot on land, however. And you will find that they are markedly less genial about being assisted by human handling.

If you can catch it, many of the aquatic turtles can be handled by the sides of the shell about half-way back or more. Yet, if you do this with a common snapper or a soft-shelled turtle, you may discover what a long neck these species have. Both are nasty-tempered, aggressive and, especially the larger snappers, quite capable of reducing your finger count.

The vice-gripping species are better moved with the aid of shovels and such. Either way, they won’t appreciate your efforts.

At the very least, drive with a little caution during these get-to-the-other-side days. Wildlife is often helped best by leaving animals alone. That’s vital in turtle vs. vehicle cases.

Steve Vantreese, a freelance outdoors writer, can be contacted at outdoors@paducahsun.com.