School bus drivers, oil and gas truck drivers stop for railroad crossings. I stop for turtles. I stop and when the road and traffic permits I get out, pick the turtle up, carry it across the road in the direction it was heading, then put it down, silently wishing it safe travel.
A turtle in the road is not a common occurrence. But it’s not rare either. When the weather is fair, especially now, the time of their mating. Several species of turtles wander this time of year, some for considerable distances. I have seen turtles in woodlands a mile or more from the nearest pond or lake, stream or river. Like the fabled tortoise when it raced the hare, they go plodding continuously along.
Plodding is not a good description for the locomotion of turtles. Their legs are out to their sides, between two shells, one on their back, fused to their ribs, and one on their front. The shell on their back is named the carapace, the one on their front the plastron. Size and shape of the carapace and plastron and the scutes that make up the shells, plus the color pattern on these and the head and neck distinguish the different species of turtles.
Turtles are ancient animals. They evolved, came into being, before dinosaurs and they survived whatever cataclysm caused the extinction of the dinosaurs. Today there are 48 species in North America, a total of about 250 species in the world.
Turtles are long lived as well as of ancient lineage. Marking shells and recording dates have shown that many turtles live 20 to 50 years, some even longer, many more than a hundred years. Want a pet that you will likely not mourn at its death? Get a turtle; it will likely live longer than you do.
One of the most common and widespread turtles of North America is the eastern box turtle. It’s described as a dry land turtle and is often seen wandering far from water. It’s small, the carapace four to six inches long and spotted with yellow. It can withdraw its feet and legs into its shell and close flaps on the front and back of the plastron, sealing itself as within a box.
Another common turtle of mid-America is the snapper. The average length of the carapace of a snapping turtle is 8 to 12 inches but some get much bigger. The record length of the carapace of a snapping turtle is near 20 inches and the weight of that turtle was 86 pounds. A turtle that big would likely be safe in the road. No driver wants to run into a critter that big.
The alligator snapping turtle, another turtle of North America is even bigger. The biggest turtle in North America, and one of the biggest turtles that roams on land in the world, the biggest recorded had a carapace 26 inches long and weighed 219 pounds. Its range is the south and southeastern U.S. north to Illinois and southwest Indiana.
The biggest turtle in the world is the leatherback, a turtle of the oceans. A big one can have a carapace eight feet long and it can weigh a thousand pounds. It comes to land to dig a hole and lay its eggs and may be seen in the U.S. along the coast of Florida.
Other turtles to look for in the wetlands, woods and fields of Indiana and on the roads are the eastern mud turtle, spotted turtle, wood turtle, map turtle, eastern painted turtle, midland painted turtle, Blandings turtle, eastern spiny softshell and, my favorite, the stinkpot turtle.
A caution. If you find a softshell turtle in the road, pick it up by the back of the shell. Softshells have exceptionally long necks and bite painfully. Believe me.