What likely drove the crash-causing turtle

A red-bellied cooter, the kind of turtle some now think caused the crash.
A red-bellied cooter, the kind of turtle some now think caused the crash. (N.J. Dept. of Environmental Protection)
Posted: July 14, 2013

The yellow-spotted green turtle that sparked mayhem this week on a Jersey Shore route may have left its home in the woods because of recent heavy rains or because of a strong nesting instinct.

Or it might have just had a hankering for something different to eat.

Area wildlife officials, science professors, and researchers offered insight Friday into the secret lives of the turtles that usually inhabit burrows and ponds, but that sometimes cause three-car crashes.

After the turtle wandered onto Route 30 in Atlantic County on Wednesday afternoon, a line of traffic on the busy four-lane highway swerved and then came to a crawl. Soon, a Burlington County couple had ended up in a nearby hospital; a billboard was smashed; and a utility pole lay on the ground.

The wayward turtle, described as the size of a basketball, was relatively unscathed. A Galloway Township police officer found it stuck on an axle of one of the crumpled cars and set it free in a woods.

The consistent rain that has fallen on the region could be one reason the animal entered civilization, because summer showers will cause turtles to leave their hiding places.

"After heavy rains, box turtles will get up and move around and look for new places to find food," said James Spotila, environmental science professor at Drexel University. "Or, if they are flooded out, they will try to move to higher ground."

The turtle's color description matches that of an Eastern box turtle, a terrestrial reptile found in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. But some turtle experts believe it could have been a red-bellied cooter or a red-eared slider, also found in both states.

Kim Laidig, a research scientist with the Pinelands Commission, said turtles, snakes, and salamanders often appear on roads after rain. "The water tends to bring the reptiles out," he said. "Maybe it's easier to move and cooler to move. . . . They hide to avoid unbearable heat."

But it is also likely the turtle was making its annual trek to find a place to lay its eggs, said Dave Jenkins, a bureau chief with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.

"They come out of streams, rivers, and ponds," he said, "and go upland to lay their eggs."

But if it was a box turtle, it indeed was a slowpoke: Nesting season is usually in May and June.

Brian Zarate, a senior DEP zoologist, thinks the turtle may be a red-bellied cooter, a semiaquatic species that can grow to 15 pounds, the weight the patrolman estimated the turtle to be.

These turtles may travel long distances from a pond to "find a suitable nesting place." And July is still nesting season for this species, he said.

"A lot of that movement occurs when there is rain," Zarate said, "because turtles sense moisture in the area, and they know that will make it easier to dig into the ground to deposit their eggs."

Pennsylvania officials say snapping turtles sometimes turn up in mulch gardens in the suburbs for a similar reason. It's easy to dig into the mulch, and it's a warm place for the eggs.

Jesse Rothacker, director of the Forgotten Friend Reptile Sanctuary in Lancaster County, has a different theory of why the turtles cross roads.

Some instinctively go back to the same place every year to lay their eggs, regardless of whether a new road has been built or whether it's a busy summer holiday, he said.

"When females are looking to lay their eggs," Rothacker said, "that will take them into more high-risk areas where they normally wouldn't go."

Sprawl and additional traffic cause an increasing number of turtle fatalities, he said. And the rain sometimes creates puddles in the road that entice the turtles "to come looking for worms" in a new dining spot, he said.

In the case of the Galloway turtle, it somehow survived its near-death brush with a row of cars and trucks.

Patrolman Steve Garrison said several motorists told him they witnessed the turtle meandering across the road and saw people trying to avoid hitting it. When Garrison freed it in a woods across the highway, the turtle "took off," he said.

If it laid eggs in that new spot, it can be hoped the babies will look both ways before crossing the road.


Contact Jan Hefler at 856-779-3224 or jhefler@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @JanHefler. Read her blog, "Burlco Buzz," at www.inquirer.com/BurlcoBuzz.

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