Why did the turtle cross the road? And do any of them ever make it to the other side?

State Herpetologist Jeff Briggler and a team of volunteers have been counting turtles on Missouri’s roads. Ninety percent of them had been hit by cars.

Why are they crossing the road?

Briggler says most of them are young turtles either staking out new territory or looking for a mate. Others are basking on the warm pavement on cool mornings.

Briggler says giving them a helping hand does improve their chances if you put them the direction they were heading. Otherwise, he says, they’re just going to go back out on the road again.

He says box turtles are very resiliant and can survive after being struck sometimes, but the biggest threat is when they get hit and get flipped on their backs, which is a death sentence. He said they can’t get a foot-hold on anything when landing upside down on a smooth surface. They eventually bake in the sun and die.

He says despite the high road mortality rate, box turtles are doing well in Missouri, not so in coastal states that see more traffic.

The Missouri Department of Conservation reports that box turtles live a long time, and females continue laying eggs for most of their lives. They need lots of time to replace themselves, since snakes, raccoons, opossums and other nest predators eat most of their eggs. Before roads crisscrossed their habitat a low reproductive rate was no big deal. Animals that continue laying eggs past 60 years of age can afford to take their time replacing themselves. But the unnatural mortality caused by speeding cars is a problem.

"Box turtles did not evolve amid thousands of miles of busy highway," says Briggler. "We don’t know very much about how highway mortality will affect their long-term survival, but the implications of our casual observations are worrisome. Animals with low reproductive potential usually cannot sustain the sort of continuing slaughter that we see on our roads."

He suggests motorists slow down when they see a turtle in the road and check to be sure they can safely steer around it. If traffic and road conditions permit, motorists can pull their vehicles off the roadway and carry turtles to the other side of the road and place them at least 15 feet beyond the pavement, facing away from the road.

Briggler another threat to turtles is the practice of capturing them for pets. He says the animals’ nutritional needs are not easy to meet in captivity, so captive turtles are likely to die due to improper care. In most cases, that means slow starvation.

He suggests keeping a turtle only for a day or two and then releasing it where it was captured. He said this last condition is very important, since turtles are intimately familiar with their home areas. If released in strange surroundings, they have trouble finding food and may wander across roads trying to meet their daily needs.

The three-toed box turtle is the species most often seen crossing roads in Missouri. Primarily a woodland species, it is found everywhere but the extreme northern part of Missouri. The ornate box turtle is found in all but the southeastern corner of the state, but is more adapted to grassland and is most common in western Missouri. Young males make up most of the travelers as they search for territories of their own and for female turtles.

Three-toed box turtles have three toes on each hind foot, unless they have lost a few appendages to predators or frostbite. Ornate box turtles usually have four toes per hind foot. In keeping with their name, ornate box turtles also have more vivid yellow stripes on a black background on the tops of their shells. The bottoms of their shells typically have streaks of black on a yellow background.

For more information about box turtles, visit www.mdc.mo.gov/nathis/herpetol/boxturtles/

Jessica Machetta reports [Download/listen MP3]