Why Did The Turtle Cross The Road?

Turtles, tortoises, and terrapins belong to the genus Chelonia. The largest Chelonia is the leatherback sea turtle. America’s smallest Chelonia is the bog turtle and Africa’s smallest turtle and the smallest turtle in the world is the speckled dwarf tortoise. Although, there are differences between turtles, tortoises, and terrapins. 

What Is the Difference Between Turtles, Tortoises, and Terrapins?

Turtles live in water bodies, lakes, rivers, wetlands, and oceans. They have paddle-shaped front legs. Their back feet are webbed and allow them to move through water easily. Turtles have thin shells that are more efficient for swimming and navigating through aquatic ecosystems. Their tear glands help them eliminate salt from their bodies. They are omnivores and eat plants and animals, including algae, sea grass, jelly fish, small fish, and crustaceans.

Terrapins are a hybrid between turtles and tortoises. They use both land and water, always live near water bodies, their shells are slightly domed and slightly streamlined, and they do not have webbed feet. They do well in freshwater and swamps. The diamondback terrapin in North America  lives in brackish water and prefers to eat fish. 

Tortoises live in a wide variety of ecosystems, which include deserts, evergreen forests, grasslands, and scrublands, and most tortoise species call semiarid habitats their home. They only drink and bathe in water and cannot swim. They have dome-shaped shells, sturdy forelimbs, and pillar-like back legs, which are larger than a turtle’s legs and well-developed for walking on land. Tortoises eat mostly plants and some insects. 

Why Do Turtles, Terrapins, and Tortoises Cross Roads?

The Chelonians cross roads for different reasons. Different species of wild turtles have different life spans and can live from 25 years to over 100 years. It is the same with terrapins. Wild terrapins live an average of 20 to 30 years, and diamondback terrapins can live up to 40 years. Tortoises live from 50 to 100 years on average, but can live up to 150 years. When Chelonians cross roads, they are in danger of shortening their life spans. 

In late spring, female turtles leave their wet habitats and cross roads to find a nesting site where they bury their eggs on land. Males do so to find a mate. Terrapins also move looking for nesting places and like to use roadsides for them. Tortoises cross roads for nesting, running from predators, and mating. Rainfall also causes Chelonians to cross roads. 

Should You Help Chelonians Cross Roads?

In 2002, biologists James P. Gribbs and W. Gregory Shriver published “Estimating the Effects of Road Mortality on Turtle Populations” and reported that, “The toll of turtles killed on roads isn’t just grisly, it has real consequences for turtle populations. Apparently, North America’s combination of “exceptionally high turtle diversity” and a lot of roads isn’t a happy one.” (1)

Yes, but do not place yourself in danger and be careful with snapping turtles. Let the turtle cross the road on its own if there is no oncoming traffic. Gently grasp the shell edge near the mid-point of the body with two hands, avoid sudden movements, and place the turtle 30 feet off the road pointed in the same direction it was traveling. 

If you make sudden movements around a wild turtle, it may change direction, stop, or retreat into its shell. Some turtles will void their bladders when you pick them up, so watch out for that and do not drop the turtle. The turtle may become disoriented when you move it, so it is important to place far enough from the road in as direct of a line as possible so it does not return to the road. 

For larger turtles, you can use your vehicle floor mat. Get the turtle onto the mat and safely drag them across the road. Never pick up a turtle by its tail because you can damage its spine. Box turtles live in the same two-acre areas their whole lives. They know every inch of their territory, like the best spots for food and places to bury themselves in cold weather. Please do not remove any turtle out of its region of familiarity; it knows where it is. 

Snapping turtles are a different animal. Snapping turtles can snap as far back as the middle of their shells. Lift them with two hands behind their rear legs underneath their shells. They commonly squirm and kick, so it is difficult to hang on to them. Check out this YouTube video for tips on a safe way to pick up and move a snapping turtle.

A Turtle’s Terrifying Enemy—Train Tracks

When a turtle crosses over the rail of a train track, it is trapped. Turtles cannot find their way back over the rail. They find themselves succumbing to overheating and desiccation. In 2015, Japan’s West Japan Railway Company and the Suma Aqualife Park created separate, U-shaped lanes underneath the existing tracks to save their turtles. Japan’s turtles cross the West Japan Railway tracks without getting stuck or crushed to death.

Road Hazards for Turtles

Gibb’s and Shriver’s research found that in a one kilometer (0.621371 mile)/km2 with traffic volumes of 100 vehicles per lane per day “were predicted to be sufficient to contribute excessively to the annual adult mortality rates of land turtles”. And for large-bodied pond turtles that threshold is 2 km of roads/km2 with traffic volumes of 200 vehicles per lane per day. “Combinations of road density and daily traffic volume produce various levels of annual road-associated mortality in turtles in different regions of the United States...”

Turtles Swallow Deadly Fish Hooks

In 2017, livescience.com published an article reporting on turtle mortality rates involving swallowing fish hooks in water bodies. Plenty of research has proved how commercial fishing is threatening to sea turtles around the world and is up to 82% in some regions. The threat to turtles from recreational fishing is less studied. This Live Science article reported a 33% to 36% mortality rate in freshwater turtles from fishhooks. (2)

The article attempted to calculate the probability of freshwater turtles ingesting fishhooks, how often this caused death, and how turtle deaths from swallowed hooks could affect turtle population numbers. Anyone who fishes often with live bait has more than likely caught a turtle. Even though turtles have a lot of babies, the babies have a high mortality rate before reaching adulthood. 


  1. Gribbs, J. P.,  Shriver, W. G. (2002). Estimating the Effects of Road Mortality on Turtle Populations. Estimating the Effects of Road Mortality on Turtle Populations. Conservation Biology16(No. 6), 1647–1652. College of Environmental Science and Forestry, State University of New York,
  2. (n.d.). Reel Threat: How Recreational Fishing Endangers Freshwater Turtles News By Mindy Weisberger. Livescience.com. https://www.livescience.com/58422-swallowed-fishhooks-threaten-turtles.html


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