“The turtle toiling forward so long, having seen so much with his antediluvian eyes. The turtle munching olives where the ocean is deepest: the turtle that swam seven centuries and knows seven millennial springs.”
— “La Tortuga”
by Pablo Neruda
Turtles are relics from the time of the dinosaurs, living fossils, so well adapted to their environment that they have changed little from their early ancestors. While the dinosaurs quickly rose to prominence and just as quickly went extinct, the turtle plodded on.
Snapping turtles are the most commonly encountered and most numerous of the native turtles, holding their own while other species head toward extinction. The modern form of the snapping turtle evolved approximately 40 million years ago and is considered the ancestor of at least 80 percent of modern turtle species. Snappers are, in fact, remarkably similar to the earliest known turtle Proganochelys, which appeared 215 million years ago, Dinosaurs (100 million years ago) and humans (3.5 million years ago) are relative newcomers. Turtles are one of the few groups of reptiles to outlive the 6-mile-wide meteor strike that resulted in nuclear winter and the subsequent K-T mass extinction that killed off the dinosaurs.
However, for all their tenacity, since the advent of the car and the modern technological advances that make human life more comfortable, turtles have been in decline worldwide.
All turtles move around, migrate from pond to pond, nesting site to stream, a lot more than one would think given their ponderous gait, and it is while they are wandering that they are most likely to encounter their deadliest enemy — a car.
June is a good time to see snapping turtles as it is their peak egg-laying month. Snapping turtles will be actively moving from ponds and streams to nest-sites over the next month or two. They prefer sandy, south-facing banks and are frequently seen laying eggs along country roads.
One noteworthy fact about female snapping turtles — they can retain sperm for up to 2 years, helpful in areas that don’t have a dense turtle population.
The upper and lower shells of a turtle are extensions of the vertebrae, so are, therefore, living bone. Unlike many turtles, snappers can’t withdraw into their shells, but what they lose in protection they gain in mobility. Snappers can move relatively quickly, and if you do choose to take a close look at one, beware of its long neck and ferocious jaws.
If you see a turtle by the road, try to protect it. If you have time, stop traffic while the turtle crosses the road. If the turtle is already crossing, carry it to the side of the road in the direction it is heading. Don’t bring it to the nearest body of water or some other “safe” haven. Turtles are crossing roads for a reason — they have a destination in mind.
Finally, if it is a snapping turtle, don’t pick it up — it might bite you. The best thing to do is push or prod it across the street and let it go on its way, as it retraces migratory routes that its ancestors have been following since well before humans appeared on the scene.
Sue Pike of York has worked as a researcher and a teacher in biology, marine biology and environmental science for years. She teaches at York County Community College and St. Thomas Aquinas High School. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.