Here in Maine, June is a busy month in the world of turtles! Female turtles are often seen along or in the roads as they leave wetlands in search of a nesting site. The sandy and gravelly road beds often provide the perfect substrate for nesting, but also a most dangerous guantlet for the slow moving reptiles. The turtle shell has provided to be amazing protection for 200 million years, but does not stand up to the weight of our fast moving vehicles!
On June 14th Kathy and Ed Thompson (Chewonki’s business manager and librarian) brought in an eastern painted turtle that they had seen hit by a car not far from their home. It was a female which sustained major shell fractures. Despite being able to piece together her fragments and wire her shell together she died, from internal injuries, two days later. In hopes of being able to keep her genetic line alive, we harvested the 9 eggs from her body cavity and “planted” them in a tray of loose sand and loam. The eggs were warmed by a heat lamp, and kept moist with a daily spray of water.
Five hatchling turtles emerged from their eggs during the first week of September! There isn’t anything much cuter than a baby turtle, a perfect replicate of an adult in a smaller package! Their shells are a little mis-shapened by the enclosed shell they have emerged from, and very soft. A baby painted turtle is as small as a nickel, and weighs only 4 grams (about as much as 4 paperclips). They hatch with the yolk sac still visible that will provide nutrients and slowly be absorbed over the course of a week.
The little turtles are all doing fine, eating well, swimming, basking and quickly hiding whenever anyone walks into the rehab room. In the wild, hatchling painted turtles frequently over-winter in their nest, hatching from the eggs but remaining underground until the warm rains of the late spring. They are hard wired to emerge form their nest and begin the long walk to the nearest water. Our artificial hatching is a bit different, but after overwintering with us the hatchlings will be released in the spring at the wetland nearest to where their mother was hit.
While the survival of hatchlings in the wild is typically very low, the success of turtles on this planet for millions of years is in part due to their long life. During their lifetime (10 to 150 years depending on the species) female turtles may produce hundreds or thousands of eggs, only a handful will survive to adulthood. The adults have few natural predators, but the hatchlings are eaten by a variety of avian and mammalian predators. When spring comes and we release these turtles, all we will be able to do is cross our fingers and hope they will survive the 6 or so years before they too will begin their wanderings for a nesting site. We’ll wish them luck!
If you come across a turtle crossing the road, please take the time to help it along (if you can do so safely) in the direction that it is heading. While it might be tempting to move it somewhere else, a “safer” wetland perhaps, move it off the road and then cross your fingers. It knows where it is going and is better left in its’ home territory!