Turtles take to the streets: Nesting season has begun


UPPER FREEHOLD — Why did the turtle cross the road? This time of year, it’s likely due to mating season, and while many turtles make it across the road, many others do not.

Township property owner Valerie Palluzzi, a longtime conservationist, does not like seeing turtle remains on local roadways and plans to enroll her 20.5-acre parcel near the Assunpink Wildlife Management Area into the federal Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP) to protect existing turtle habitats. New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife representatives have already inspected the land.

The veterinary technician has been interested in turtles for a long time. She has pet turtles but wanted to do more for turtles in the wild after an incident in 2007. At that time, a pregnant diamondback terrapin, which is classified as a species of concern that lives in salt marshes and tidal rivers, got hit by a car. Although the turtle was taken to an emergency veterinary hospital, it sustained life-threatening injuries that prevented it from being saved.

 The bog turtle (above) is listed as endangered in the state of New Jersey. The wood turtle (left) is considered a threatened species in New Jersey. The bog turtle (above) is listed as endangered in the state of New Jersey. The wood turtle (left) is considered a threatened species in New Jersey. “Her eggs were extracted and she was humanely put to sleep,” Palluzzi said. “Her eggs were brought to me, where I incubated them and had six hatchlings.”

The hatchlings were reared in captivity to give thema head start, because the larger they are in the wild, the better chance they have of surviving, Palluzzi said. At the age of 2, the turtles were released in the area where their mother lived.

Brian Zarate, of Fish and Wildlife’s Endangered and Nongame Species Program, said almost every freshwater turtle species can be found in western Monmouth County. These include painted, snapping, non-native red-eared slider, musk, redbelly, eastern box, spotted, and mud turtles. The wood turtle is listed as a threatened species in the state, and the bog turtle is listed as endangered in the state and threatened on the federal list, Zarate said.

The turtles people will most likely spot throughout the county are the painted, snapping, redbelly and red-eared slider, according to Zarate.

“These are your ‘classic’ semi-aquatic pond turtles, the ones you’re most likely to find basking on logs in a local lake or pond,” he said .

Zarate added that musk and mud turtles are found in muddy, pond-bottom shorelines but can also be seen in seeping floodplains and in larger streams and canals.

“Eastern box turtles are the most terrestrial of the bunch and are considered a bit of a habitat generalist, spending a good deal of time in between forest and wetland. They are not stream or pond turtles,” Zarate said.

Spotted and bog turtles prefer to live in expansive open canopy wetlands or marshes, but spotted turtles can also be seen in a forest matrix dotted with vernal pools, which they move between, Zarate said. They can also be seen in beaver marshes, smaller streams, and mucky ditches, he said. Wood turtles are a stream-dependent species that hibernate and breed in streams, but spend considerable time in the uplands surrounding their home streams, outward to over 300 meters, according to Zarate.

He explained that turtles generally mate in the spring and fall, as soon as they awake from hibernation and just before they go back into hibernation. Nesting season usually lasts from early or middle May through the month of June.

“It’s during these two months that turtles may leave their more typical habitats in search of a suitable nesting area, which could be across a roadway or other obstruction,” he said.

Zarate noted that changes in land use and obstructions like roads and railways have separated turtles from their normal nesting areas, forcing them to seek preferred grounds elsewhere and to brave dangerous routes.

“Turtles are creatures of habit and will often return to the same nesting area from year to year,” Zarate said. “And because many turtles live well into their 20s or even 50s, they have seen their surrounding habitat drastically change over time.”

Zarate said motorists or passers-by who see a turtle in harm’s way on the road could move them.

“Keep your safety in mind and place the turtle on the opposite side of the road in the direction itwas heading, off of the shoulder,” he said .

Most turtles are safe to handle, but should be grabbed toward the rear shell. Snapping turtles should not be handled by the tail, which can injure them, but can be safely handled by the rear shell or hind legs to prevent the head from coming back beyond half of the shell length.

“Nevermove a turtle to a new area that you ‘think’is better for it,” he said. “They are masters of their local environment and are most comfortable in familiar places.”

Zarate explained that turtles exhibit strong site fidelity, and if displaced, will do everything they can to try to return to their homes, which may include facing new obstacles and challenges the rescuer had not intended.

Anyone seeing an injured turtle should contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. Zarate said it is illegal to take any New Jersey turtle out of the wild.

“Turtles have persisted over the years since the time of the dinosaurs by living long lives, allowing them to reproduce for many years,” he said. “So, the removal of any turtle from the wild can have impacts on that local population, particularly if it’s an adult female.”

Those who want to keep turtles as pets must do their homework, he said. Turtles can live for decades in captivity, and some species will grow from the size of a half dollar to over a foot in length in just a few years, he said.

“Make sure you deal with a reputable seller that only offers captive-breed animals,” he said. “Do not release pet turtles into the wild. It is illegal to do so and is unsafe for the turtle. Many captive turtles will not be able to fend for themselves and will perish the first winter.

“And although appearing healthy, captive animals can spread disease to wild populations,” he said.