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Why do turtles cross the road? A turtle expert explains


Karen Testa heads the nonprofit Turtle Rescue of the Hamptons. A lifelong turtle lover, she spoke about some of the devastating injuries she's seen inflicted upon the animals, which can sometimes take years to rehabilitate before they can be released back into the wild. She and other experts also spoke about how important turtles are to the ecosystem, and how external factors are causing many turtle species to go extinct, which will in turn affect us. (Credit: Randee Daddona)

Why do turtles cross the road?

It’s not the start to a cheesy joke. Getting hit by cars is a common cause of death for turtles in the spring and summer, as they try to complete their mating rituals, which can include crossing roads while crawling from pond to pond.

That’s why turtle aficionados try to spread the word each spring — watch out.

Long Island is home to a handful of native turtle species, both aquatic and nonaquatic, that need protection as they begin their mating seasons, said Karen Testa, executive director of Turtle Rescue of the Hamptons.

“It bothers me every time I go out in the spring, summer and fall and I see box turtles out crossing the street,” said Craig Couch, 62, a self-described “nature buff” from Rocky Point. “They’ve been here forever and it’s that time of year; people should be paying attention instead of driving over them.”

At least five turtle species native to Long Island are endangered and the eastern box turtle is considered a species of special concern. According to the state Department of Environmental Conservation, all 11 native Long Island species are declining and estimates suggest thousands die every year crossing roads.

Q: OK, but why do they cross the road? What does that have to do with mating rituals?

During their mating period, male turtles may move from pond to pond, attempting to mate with as many female turtles as possible.

Once full of fertilized eggs, female turtles will seek out a spot with adequate sun and drainage to begin a nest. That step can also involve some travel, Testa said.

“It’s all about their babies and rearing their young and ensuring their survival,” she said. “Turtles have been here for over 2 billion years. They were here with dinosaurs when there were not roads or cars. They have no concept, instinctually, of this.”

Q: When should drivers be on the lookout?

Testa said turtles typically begin hibernating in October and come out in April, depending on the weather. When they do come out, it’s usually time to mate.

Rainy and humid days should put drivers on high turtle alert — for aquatic turtles in particular, Testa said. “They feel they can move from point A to B and not dry out,” she said.

Q: What should I do if I see a turtle crossing?

Testa said the best strategy when you come across a turtle in the road is to make sure there are no cars coming and move the turtle out of harm’s way in the direction it was headed. Try to pick an area that isn’t too sunny and has some cover from birds and other predators, she said.

Even snapping turtles can be moved, she said. Just don’t approach one from the front or pick one up by the tail (that can damage the spine). You can gently scoop it up with a shovel or poke it with a stick from behind to get it moving.

At the very least, consider driving around the animal and “giving turtles a break,” the DEC says on its website.

“They’re more afraid of you than you of them,” Testa said.

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