Northeast Iowa's scenic area along the Mississippi River brings a variety of yearly visitors. Like tourists who flock to the river on warm summer days, fish flies, geese, and gnats show up around the same time every year. The months of May and June coax a slower moving creature into view.
Nesting turtles will soon begin attempting to get up out of the flood zone to lay their eggs on land. Some of last year's eggs have already hatched after a winter in dormancy. Locals are likely to see turtles crossing anywhere a road intersects or travels alongside a wetland or waterway.
Did you know?
Turtles have inhabited the Earth for over 220 million years. Although they have survived many chaotic periods of the planet’s history, they are disappearing at a distressing rate. According to the Minnesota DNR, over 45% of the world’s turtle species are identified as threatened or endangered.
The U.S. has more native turtle species than any other country, with about a dozen species native to Iowa. Commonly found in our area are the:
Painted Turtle, marked with orange or yellow along the head, neck, and shell.
Map Turtle, with a ridged, spotted shell; the spiny softshell turtle, recognizable by its flat, rubber-like shell.
Common Snapping Turtle, which has a long tail and a hooked upper jaw.
Turtles mature slowly, making each individual a critical member of the species. Individuals from some species can take 10 to 15 years to reach reproductive age. A female turtle may produce up to 500 eggs during her lifetime, so losing even a few females can jeopardize the entire population.
It’s quite common to spot turtles crossing roads or shuffling through lawns around the area, but it’s also common to see them flattened by vehicles. “Unfortunately, not all motorists stop or try to avoid the turtles crossing,” said Natural Resources Biologist Karen Osterkamp, of the Iowa DNR. “I just don’t understand how anyone cannot avoid a turtle when driving through a street that is a 25 mph zone.”
“Turtles have so many natural predators, such as raccoons, skunks, birds, and snakes, that prey upon the nests,” she went on. Add in humans and highways, and they have an even slimmer chance at producing offspring and surviving. Predators and habitat loss or degradation pose a threat to turtles, but vehicles don’t have to.
Helping Turtles Cross the Road:
Turtles crossing roads at this time of year are often moving to familiar nesting locations. They know where they are going, so if you decide to help a turtle cross the road, move the turtle in the direction it is heading. Do not relocate the turtle to a new area, and do not disturb a turtle if it is not in danger.
Simply pulling off the road and turning on your hazard lights can alert other drivers to slow down. If you decide to help a turtle cross the road, use caution. All turtles can scratch or bite, but snapping turtles and spiny softshells bite harder. Snapping turtles can be moved with a snow shovel, or coaxed into biting a stick and carefully dragged to safety.
Turtles should be picked up by the back of the shell, not by the tail, and you should always wash your hands after handling a turtle.
Osterkamp asks that motorists steer clear of turtles on roadways as they move to and from nesting areas. “They are often overlooked,” she explained, “But they are really amazing animals.”
Photo courtesy of Kevin Hanson, Iowa DNR Fisheries Biologist