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Volume 15, Issue 31 ~ August 2- August 8, 2007


Where Have All Our Turtles Gone?

On Monday morning near the Bay, we saw something we haven’t seen for a while: a turtle crossing a country road.

We did something we once did frequently. We pulled over and carried the little reptile to his or her destination, a cool forest floor on the opposite side of the road.

Soon afterward, we witnessed a harrowing what we hope was a rescue of another Eastern box turtle traversing busy Rt. 4 just west of Rt. 258. A green mini-van screeched to a halt and sped in reverse, intent on saving the creature from certain death.

Is it just us, or are you, too, troubled by rarely seeing the orange-marked turtles that were so common around Chesapeake Bay not long ago?

It was closer to 20 years ago, come to think about it, when they were frequent visitors in our Bayfront community. It seemed like every day they’d be crawling around our yard and patio, delighting the children and driving the dogs nuts.

We didn’t encourage their captivity, but we knew many kids who had them for pets. The daughter of one of our friends kept hers in her basement in Washington until she went off to college, then released it in Rock Creek Park.

Turtles have been around for 200 million years or so, a lot longer than people. The United States was once called Turtle Island by its pre-European inhabitants. Box turtles of all varieties have been popular with all ages perhaps because they’re so unthreatening, easy to capture and hold and fold up like miniature pith helmets.

There are various reasons offered why we see so few of them now. Some scientists blame climate change, concluding that turtles have little capacity to withstand temperature swings and that there have been fewer offspring in recent years.

C. Kenneth Dodd wrote in his book, North American Box Turtles: A Natural History: “Their habitat has been replaced by housing developments, strip malls, frighteningly busy roads and the general mayhem of an urban and suburban lifestyle. Even well-protected populations have declined.”

Whatever the case, turtles may well be sentinels warning us of what has gone wrong with our earth. Humans have an ability to adapt to environmental changes, but sadly, many species do not, and in our lifetime we are seeing dramatic changes in the living world.

If you’re lucky enough to see a turtle at risk, give it a hand. (You can wash that hand later, if you’re worried.)

A question occurs to us: Why did the turtle cross the road?

The answer: Because we put that road there.

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