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In the Face of Danger, Turtles Press On


Their destinations and motives are as varied as those of the people who drive on the roads, says University of Richmond ecologist and regional turtle expert Joseph C. Mitchell. Turtles hibernate in the winter and wake in the spring. They mate, nest and lay eggs in the peak turtle travel months of May and June.

"Their hormones are up," Mitchell says. "They're looking for mates and nesting sites and food. The rains bring them out because they're looking for slugs and worms and other things to eat. And maybe they're like us. Maybe they just want to move around."

Turtles can live 50 to 100 years. They reach sexual maturity in their teens and never lose the capacity to reproduce. And they lay only a small number of eggs, very few of which survive.

Ironically, what nature gives them — longevity and the ability to reproduce into old age — is often negated by cars. There is also some evidence that older female turtles in search of nesting sites travel the most. They could be the ones most likely to die on roads.

"When you see a dead turtle in the road, you're basically looking at an animal that was as old as your grandmother. Think about her history and everything she went through. And there she is, squashed by a damn car," Mitchell laments, adding: "In Richmond, where you have a small population and just a small fragment of forest left, you're basically looking at the end of half the population when you see a dead female.

"That's the snuffing out of a whole genetic line that can never be replaced."

In at least one state, Florida, dead turtles are tracked, and the state is experimenting with guide walls that block turtles and other reptiles and amphibians from the highway and funnel them through a series of underground ecopassages.

Nobody counts dead turtles in Virginia, or works to shield them from the highway. But the Virginia Department of Transportation is building two large culverts over U.S. Highway 17 in a section of the Dismal Swamp Wildlife Refuge in Chesapeake to accommodate bears. And this month, the Virginia Transportation Research Council completed a year-long study of seven wildlife crossings for large mammals across the state, releasing infrared camera images of deer, coyotes, groundhogs, raccoons and foxes taking full advantage of the structures.

Who knows? Turtle crossings could be next. — Laura LaFay

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