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The Herps of La Crosse

Living With Herps

Easy Herp Monitoring

Herps as Pets

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Suggested Reading and Bibliography


About Me and Contact Info

Part III: The Unobtrusive Turtle

Recreated from the Nature Notes (Pg 6-7) in the April-May 2002 (Vol. 12 No. 3) issue of the Hixon Forest Nature Center Friends Newsletter.

   Turtles: Who could possibly dislike a turtle?  Who could walk through a marsh or along a river and not stop for a second to watch a group of painted turtles heaped atop a log, all vying for the best position to bask in the sun?  Their shy demeanors, their bright and alert eyes, their ability to retract into their shells to avoid confrontation.  Even the less charismatic turtle species, such as the common snapper, have a certain charm. 

   Nope. There's no way around it.  No one can seriously dislike turtles.

   Well then, seeing that no one directly hates turtles, why do see so many of them squashed along roadsides?  Perhaps it's because, like many herptiles (reptiles and amphibians), they are largely ignored.  They do not stand out.  They just exist, quietly and unobtrusively going about their daily lives, with seemingly little care given to the rest of the world.

   Does this mean that turtles should continue to be some of the many forgotten critters in the animal kingdom?  Absolutely not!  Because they don't draw attention to themselves does not mean that they don't require our protection.  Consider this: Every year, female turtles are killed in droves as they wander absurdly long distances to find suitable nesting sites (for example, the common snapping turtle will travel a kilometer, or 0.62 miles, for such purposes).  They bravely traverse road, highway, and interstate, following a natural instinct to lay their eggs in just the right spot.

   Have you ever seen a turtle sitting along a roadside trying to cross?  I'm sure you have.  Ever stop to help it?  Hmmmm. A turtle's shell (an elaborate modification of rib bones and vertebrae) is strong, but not strong enough to withstand a collision with a vehicle moving at 55 mph.

   Beginning in early June and ending in July, female turtles can frequently be seen emerging from the water to begin an arduous journey to find suitable areas to build their nests in.  Often, female turtles are witnessed along trails that run near water, carefully digging these nests.  I'm sure many of you have encountered such turtles.  I'd also be willing to bet that some of you have even gone back to that spot later and found an exhumed nest with little scraps of turtle shell strewn about.  This is the fate of many turtle nests.  A large percentage of them are destroyed each year by mammals such as raccoons and opossums.  Therefore, it's easy to see that once the danger ends for a pregnant female turtle (after she's built her nest and returned to the water), the peril is just beginning for the developing turtles of her brood.

   For the turtle eggs that do survive and hatch, the hard times continue.  Baby turtles make a very easy meal for a large number of predators, including large frogs, other turtles, several species of mammals, and numerous birds.  In fact, most turtles will not make it to adulthood due to predation.

   All these hardships that turtles have to suffer, and we have barely mentioned the impacts that human activities have upon them.

   "So, what good is a turtle?"  Questions like this make me cringe.  Why is it that we feel the need to place a monetary value on everything?  Well, for those of you who are insistent that every living thing on this planet have some benefit to humankind, I'm not sure what to tell you.  Turtles are amazing creatures, and that should be enough.  They have survived millions of years, outliving even the dinosaurs, but are helpless against the onslaught of humans, and they need protecting.  It's amazing in and of itself that they've managed to survive at all.  If we idly stand by while these (and other) forgotten critters are allowed to disappear, then what good are we?

   Three turtle species are protected by law in Wisconsin.  These are the wood turtle, Blanding's turtle, and the ornate box turtle.  We are fortunate enough to have at least one population of Blanding's turtles (listed as "threatened" by the Wisconsin DNR) within the city limits of La Crosse.  Of the other two protected species, the wood turtle (also listed as "threatened") has been reported in nearby Trempealeau County, but the ornate box turtle (listed as "endangered") is more likely to be found in the southern portion of the state.  The placid ornate box turtle, in particular, is considered to be one of the state's most endangered reptiles.  It exists in such small numbers that it is likely this turtle will no longer be found within the next decade or two in Wisconsin.

   Furthermore, other turtle species in Wisconsin may be experiencing population declines.  We've all probably seen painted turtles.  But when was the last time you saw a map turtle?  To be technically correct, there are three sub-species of map turtle in the La Crosse  area: the common map turtle, the false map turtle, and the Ouachita map turtle.  Do these turtles need protection?  It's hard to say since so little research has been performed on them within Wisconsin.

   Conserving turtles should be easy for us.  As with all animal species, it's a matter of habitat conservation.  We need to speak up in defense of our wetlands, rivers, and lakes, as well as the creatures that inhabit them.  We need to give the turtle a helping hand.  Don't punish the unobtrusive turtle for being itself.  If you see a turtle trying to cross the road, and you're not in danger of injuring anyone by doing so, pull over.  Pick the little critter up and take it across the road in the direction it was headed.  Chances are, it won't act very grateful.  However, you might just feel a whole lot better about yourself.

Joshua M. Kapfer, Graduate Student
River Studies Center
University of Wisconsin-La Crosse

Special Thanks to:
    Daniel R. Sutherland (Ph.D.) and Paul E. Drevnick, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, for review, and the personnel at the Hixon Forest Nature Center for giving me the opportunity to write.


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