The Naturalist: Why did the turtle cross the road?

Elma the eastern box turtle lives at Woodcock Nature Center. She is one of the ambassador animals available for adoption as a holiday gift.

Elma the eastern box turtle lives at Woodcock Nature Center. She is one of the ambassador animals available for adoption as a holiday gift.

Sam Nunes / Woodcock Nature Center

WILTON — In June it’s common to find turtles crossing the road. Unfortunately, roads are a major cause of death for turtles because of the fragmentation of habitat along with increased risk of car strikes while crossing the road. So why do turtles cross the road? It’s not just to get to the other side.

In early summer it is common to find mother turtles — including painted turtles, snapping turtles, and eastern box turtles — walking across streets to lay eggs in their favorite nesting sites. People driving by often pick them up and put them back on the side of the road they came from, especially if that is where the pond or body of water is. Although this is done with good intention, it only means the turtle will have to start her journey across the road again. Remember, they are crossing the road with a purpose and that won’t change after your attempt at a rescue. The best thing to do if you want to move a turtle is to bring it to the side of the road it’s facing — that helps it complete its journey!

The next time we see turtles crossing the road is about a month and a half later after the babies hatch. This time they want to be moving back to the body of water their mother came from. Again, if you see a baby turtle crossing the road it is best to put that turtle on the side of the road it is walking toward. They know where they’re going, so let them do their thing.

Some turtles don’t even live in ponds. Eastern box turtles are terrestrial (land) turtles that live in woodlands. Their territories are very small and they won’t survive if you remove them from their territory. With that in mind, it is not a good idea to relocate a box turtle. They know all the best spots for hiding and hunting in their territory and if you move it, it will simply try to find their way home — which could involve lots of dangerous street crossing.

You should always be cautious when handling turtles. They can carry bacteria and some — like snapping turtles — can be dangerous. While helping them cross the road it is best not to touch them. Perhaps gently using a tool such as a stick to entice them to continue walking themselves. If you find you do need to lift them up, it is best to cover the face with a cloth before lifting, and grab from the sides of the body as far away frrom the face as possible. Snapping turtles can be deceivingly quick and their necks are very long. Of course, also keep in mind that your safety comes first: If the road is not safe for you to stop on, don’t stop.

Thank you for keeping our environment and yourselves safe!


Sam Nunes is an educator at Woodcock Nature Center.