Saturday, June 23, 2012

Why turtles travel in nesting season

By Ruth Smith, Special to Berkshires Week

A female painted turtle was the focus of much curiosity and exploration among a group of preschoolers that I spent time with recently. She had climbed out of a river, crawled through the shoreline buffer of silver maples and clambered across a lawn in search of a sunny spot to lay her eggs.

This is a vulnerable time for turtles, as they leave the rivers and ponds where they spend most of their life, following an irresistible urge to produce the next generation of their kind. But it is also the time when we have the best chance for a close encounter with this common but normally skittish reptile.

The children had many questions and declarations during their close encounter.

"It's a snapper!" one boy exclaimed.
I explained that it was opening its mouth in attempts to startle us, but that the red and yellow stripes on its face, plus its smooth shell and small size, made it a harmless painted turtle.

One of the girls asked, "Why is he here?"

I answered that "he" was probably a "she" and showed them how to determine the gender of a turtle.

Often the plastron (lower shell) of the female is flatter than the male's. However, an unmistakable sign is that the male has long front claws used for clinging to the female's shell during mating. His tail is also thicker and longer, with the anal opening beyond the rear margin of the shell. The opening on the female's thin, short tail is under the edge of the shell.

I also suspected the turtle was a female because she was on land. From May through July, females may travel up to a half a mile from the water to find a suitable place to dig her nest and deposit five to 10 eggs. These eggs are oblong, about 1.5 inches long by 0.75 inches wide. The leathery shell is white or may have a yellow tint.

The eggs will be warmed by the sun throughout the summer. The temperature of the nest influences the sex of the hatchlings. Females are formed if the temperature is very high or low, and males develop when the temperature is more moderate. Because the eggs at the bottom of the nest may be a different temperature than those at the top, a single nest can produce both male and female young. The young may emerge in mid-August to late September, but some may overwinter in the nest and come out the following May.
Turtle nests are nearly impossible to see, because the female covers them so the ground looks as though she was never there. Predators such as skunks, raccoons and foxes use their sense of smell to find the nests though and frequently dig up and consume the eggs within 48 hours. It is estimated that 50 to 90 percent of nests are destroyed this way.

Egg predation is only one of the challenges that turtles face. During their journey on land the adults are also vulnerable to predators. Their webbed feet make them adept at swimming but awkward out of the water. Because ideal nest characteristics include loose, sandy soil in a sunny spot, females often pick sites along roadsides, gravel banks, or other disturbed areas where human activity occurs. This is the time of year when turtles are seen along the road or even crossing a street. Unfortunately, many of them don't survive these migrations, as they are hit by cars.

The most interesting question that the children asked about our visitor was, "What should we do with her?"

They clearly wanted to help. I explained that the best way to help turtles (or other wild animals) is to put them back where they are found. She was on a mission and needed to complete her task. The only exception is a turtle in the middle of the road, when she can safely be moved in the same direction she was traveling.

The best way we all can help turtles is to be observant and slow down when driving to avoid hitting them. With our caution and respect and a lot of luck, these creatures can live to be more than 30 years old. Good luck to those mommas on a mission!

What: 'Up close with snakes and turtles' -- search for reptiles with naturalist Réné Wendell

Where: Bartholomew's Cobble, Wheatogue Road, Sheffield

When: July 7, 10 a.m.

Admission: $4, or a family for $15

Information: (413) 229-8600,

Source: Berkshire Eagle

Monday, June 11, 2012

Volunteers needed for turtle-spotting program

By Michael Morton/Daily News staff
MetroWest Daily News
Posted Jun 10, 2012 @ 11:57 PM

It’s no secret — turtles are slow, and when they sense danger they stop in their tracks and retreat into their shells.

So with the region’s busy roads slicing up their wetland homes, they can once again use a little help this egg-laying season — like that afforded by the annual Turtle Roadway Mortality Monitoring Program and volunteers like retired Wayland teacher Emily Norton.

“The roads end up being killing fields for them,” Norton said of the female turtles, which leave the wetlands and cross roads to find soft, sunny, dig-able spots in which to lay eggs.

Four years ago, the state’s Division of Fisheries and Wildlife and Department of Transportation teamed up to save wildlife and boost human safety by reducing collisions with cars — the Linking Landscapes for Massachusetts Wildlife program.

The initiative asks residents to report wildlife sightings though an online database so they can be pinpointed on Google Maps, with a particular ecological focus on turtles.

So far, program staff have trained 100 turtle spotting volunteers in species and habitat identification, as well as safety tips — like always face traffic when out working.

Each volunteer is given an orange hard hat and a reflective safety vest and adopts a short section of road identified as high-risk because of its proximity to wetlands, especially causeways with wetlands on both sides.

Volunteers go out for surveys three times, once in May and twice in June. They are asked to log the species, gender and estimated age of both living and dead turtles. Fatalities are particularly important, but, fortunately, not always spotted despite projections.

“I think people get more disappointed when they don’t find anything,” program co-Director and biologist David Paulson said from fish and wildlife’s Westborough headquarters. “I tell them a negative result isn’t necessarily a bad thing.”

But Norton, who taught science and lives in Townsend, remembers dreading the drive to work along Rte. 27 in Wayland, knowing that near the Sudbury town line she would spot turtle casualties in the warmer months.

“I don’t know how many times I stopped traffic to get turtles across the road,” she said.

It was one of her posts for the study, and she would cart injured turtles to Tufts’ veterinary school in North Grafton, where they would usually die.

After securing two grants, a donation and a small army of volunteers, her team strung up wire mesh under an existing guardrail, with one-way doors in case animals still found a way onto the road. Mortalities soon dropped.

For the larger study, a stretch of Rte. 119 in Littleton was quickly identified as a hotspot, representing about 100 of the 303 fatalities identified in 2009, the most recent program report available.

But a new fence soon saw that number drop to a handful, Paulson said. Options elsewhere could include installing “wildlife crossing” signs, enlarging culverts or using barriers to funnel wildlife into existing passageways under roads.

Other spots in Sudbury have been studied, but came up clear, at least in 2009.

(Michael Morton can be reached at 508-626-4338 or

Source: The Milford Daily News

Sunday, June 10, 2012

New England Aquarium staff en route to Virginia release 17 endangered sea turtles

By Amanda Cedrone, Globe Correspondent

After several months of rehabilitation at the New England Aquarium, 17 endangered sea turtles were released Sunday evening off the coast of Virginia, officials said.

The turtles were rescued off of Cape Cod where they were discovered in the fall suffering from hypothermia, according to a statement from the New England Aquarium.

Staff from the New England Aquarium left Quincy -- where the aquarium’s animal care center is located -- early Sunday morning to transport the turtles to Virginia. They were released at about 8:30 p.m. near the southern tip of the Delmarva Peninsula with help from staff at the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center, the statement said.

The turtles were placed “in the sand just above the surf where the smell of the open ocean will fill their nostrils, and their flippers will hastily propel them into the water and a return to their home,” the statement said.

Along the Massachusetts coast, the warmest waters are approximately 60 degrees, which is too cold for the creatures, officials said. The water off of Virginia ranges in temperature from the low to mid-70s.

The group of turtles includes 15 Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, and two loggerhead sea turtles, the statement said. Kemp’s ridley turtles are the world’s most endangered sea turtle and the smallest, officials said.

The largest of the 17 turtles is an 80-pound loggerhead turtle named Juggernaut who was rescued by staff and volunteers of the Mass Audubon Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary weighing much less.

The turtle was suffering from hypothermia, dehydration, malnutrition, as well as a fracture on the lower shell surrounding its rear flippers, the statement said.

To ensure that the turtle gains the strength and mobility necessary in its rear flipper to catch food and escape predators, its caretakers rearranged the in-flow water pipes in its tank, forcing Juggernaut to use the flipper more regularly.

Juggernaut’s rehabilitation took six months to complete.

“Nothing happens quickly with a turtle,” said Connie Merigo, head of the aquarium’s rescue team, in the statement.

Adult loggerhead turtles weigh about 250 pounds, and can grow to about 3 feet, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website. They are reddish-brown, with a slightly heart-shaped top shell.

Kemp’s ridley turtles weigh about 100 pounds at adulthood, and can grow to be about 24 to 28 inches in length, the website said. They are grayish-green, with a somewhat circular top shell.

Amanda Cedrone can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ancedrone.