Keep an eye out for turtles crossing the road

Turtle on road

Many people may feel a bit like turtles this spring — eager to soon safely emerge from our shells and get back to enjoying the world. For humans, this might mean masking up and swapping sweatpants for going-out clothes. For turtles, it means braving busy roads to find mates and get to their nesting grounds.

As we all emerge from our dens and hit the road on new adventures, wildlife sightings — and collisions with vehicles — are more likely to involve turtles. The Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) is asking motorists to give turtles a break by keeping a keen eye out for the threatened creatures who may be basking on the pavement or simply trying to cross the road.

Spring is an active period for turtles that are setting off from their usual habitats to find mates and nesting sites. The many at-risk species of turtles in Canada, like other reptiles, are cold-blooded, so basking on gravel, sandy roadsides or warm asphalt feels good on cool spring days. And while a turtle’s shell can protect it from predators, it’s no match for a car. Every turtle lost in a vehicle collision has a significant domino effect for its entire species.

In southern British Columbia, the extensive road network means that many turtles are struck each year as they are crossing or basking on the warm roads. NCC encourages motorists to slow down when they see a turtle on the road and make sure they can safely steer around it. To learn how to help a turtle cross the road, watch our video on turtle safety here.

Turtles must survive for many years before they are able to reproduce. Many only produce eggs once a year and tend to have a very low egg survival rate. A loss of one adult turtle can mean the loss of a decade or more of turtle population development. To maintain their numbers within a population, turtles count on the survival of the adults, especially the females. Studies show that just a five per cent increase in annual mortality can put an entire population at risk of decline.

“Turtles are an important part of wetland ecosystems,” said Virginia Hudson, NCC manager of conservation planning and stewardship in British Columbia. “They play the role of the wetland janitor by helping keep wetlands clean and healthy by eating dead plants, insects and animals.”

The western painted turtle is the only native pond turtle left in the province (the Pacific pond turtle is considered extirpated, or no longer occurring, in BC). Western painted turtles are found in southern BC, where development pressures have significantly altered or destroyed much of their habitat.

“Whenever possible, our conservation work in British Columbia has prioritized conserving and restoring wetlands in the densely populated and developed valley bottoms through the settled south of this province,” says Hudson. “Not only turtles, but many other wildlife species rely on wetlands for some or all of their lifecycle.”

“Western painted turtles do happen to be among the more charming wetland creatures,” said Hudson. “It’s always uplifting to see a bunch of them sunning themselves on logs or swimming in the shallows. They are a great sign that our conservation efforts are working.”

Tips and facts

  • To help a turtle safely cross the road, first make sure the road is safe for you to pull over and help. Put your safety first.
  • Move the turtle in the direction it was going, otherwise it will likely try to cross again.
  • For turtles that hide their heads in their shells (like western painted turtle), simply pick the turtle up, gently holding it with both hands, supporting its belly and holding the top of its shell (the way you might hold a hamburger), and carry it across the road. Carry it close to the ground — you don’t want to drop it.
  • Snapping turtles can weigh as much as 34 kilograms and have heavy, spiked tails and massive, armoured shells. These turtles cannot hide their heads in their shells and have a dangerously sharp snout. They are large and grey. To move them and avoid injury to the turtle, lift them using the “handles” on either side of their tales on the back of their shells and “wheelbarrow” them across the road on their front legs. If you have a car matt or a shovel, carefully slide the turtle onto this and drag the matt or shovel across the road.
  • Once you are done moving the turtle, back away and let the turtle be to avoid causing it stress.
  • Never push or shove turtles across the road with your feet or a stick. Their shells aren't as thick underneath, and rough pavement can do a lot of damage.

Other threats to turtles include habitat loss, invasive species and illegal collection for the pet trade.