Why Did the Turtle Cross the Road?

I can’t count the number of times I’ve turned the car around – or cajoled my wife or any other unfortunate driver I happen to be with at the time to do the same – after having caught a ‘glimpse’ at sixty-five miles an hour of what could only have been a western pond turtle on the side of the road. To my chagrin, my so-called turtles have always ended up being a boot or rock or junkyard scrap. I’m still unclear if if that makes me an alarmist or a wishful thinker, seeing turtles in peril where there is neither.

What to do

Once, driving home several years ago, I happened to come up behind a car that had stopped in my rural neighborhood to pick up a wayward western pond turtle. Too late, I realized what it was the front passenger had retrieved from the road. I was tailing them, working up a pitch to negotiate the turtle’s safe return, when the car lurched to a stop, all four doors flew open, and the passengers leapt from the car. Hysterical, one of them was all too eager to tell me that, moments after retrieving their prize, the put-upon turtle had proceeded to pee all over the car  while scrabbling and scratching to be released. Surprised, the young women had dropped the turtle at her feet, where the hardened prisoner made a break under the front seats for the driver’s-side, sending the passengers into a panic. They were all too glad to return their hostage, a hardy three-legged western pond turtle I dubbed “tripod” before I released it at a BLM property in a pond a short distance away.

But this Friday, traveling along Highway 84 in San Mateo County, for the first time in years I had the misfortune of being right. The turtle in this case – a mature female – lay along the roadside shoulder in an advanced state of decay. Her plastron, crushed no doubt beneath the tires of a passing car, had been flipped upward as though on a piano hinge. I can only imagine that she had first been flipped onto her back by the front tire before the rear tire pinned the anterior of her plastron and carapace against the hardtop, caving the shell like a walnut in a nutcracker.

Too often, roadways parallel waterways, acting as a barrier obstructing daily and seasonal movement and dispersal between overwintering sites, nesting grounds, and the turtle’s natal waters. There’s no telling where this unfortunate turtle was heading. To or from the nearby creek? In search of a mate or a spot to nest? I checked the shell cavity for eggs. She was running on empty.

Fortunately, not every scenario is so grim. Two weeks ago, two colleagues turned up at work on a Monday morning with photos of a mature female western pond turtle they had come across while cycling along a roadway in Marin County. Because the turtle had been found straddling the centerline, there was no telling in which direction she had been headed, so the Samaritans had relocated the turtle across the road to safety toward the nearby creek.

In this case, they did the right thing, moving the turtle out harm’s way. But scenarios like these raise a good question: what should you do if you find a western pond turtle in the road?

To help answer that question, several years ago I developed a full-color, tri-fold brochure describing our local western pond turtle, what to do if you find one, and guidance to private landowners and public land managers alike on the best ways to protect and conserve western pond turtles through proactive land stewardship. I’ve excerpted the relevant text below:

Western pond turtles leave the safety of the water more often than you might think. Turtles come to land to nest; escape drying creeks and ponds or winter floods; hibernate; find mates; and to seek out new ponds and streams.

If you come across a healthy western pond turtle on dry land that is in no immediate danger, do not disturb it. Already skittish by nature, they are especially so on land, leading females to abandon nesting attempts. Make a point of leaving (and leave!) by walking away with heavy footsteps and loud voices. If you sneak off, the turtle may wait you out – leaving it vulnerable to predators or the elements. If you find a live turtle crossing a road, safely move it to the far side in the direction it was heading.

If you come across a western pond turtle that appears ill or has sustained recent injuries (e.g., from a pet, vehicle, or fishing tackle), carefully transport it in a covered container to a local wildlife rehabilitation center immediately. Note where you first discovered the turtle so it can be returned to the closest watershed.

And it’s free! So download the .pdf, print, and distribute.


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