On several occasions since the last rainy spell I have stopped to help box turtles, a.k.a. terrapins, cross roads. Box turtles are among my favorite critters and have been since my early childhood. Until about 1960, box turtles were abundant and are still relatively common in many parts of their range.
A surge in commercial exploitation of the species for the pet trade since then has drastically reduced the size of some populations. During a four-year period beginning in 1991, a total of 66,366 were captured and exported from the U.S. to Japan and Europe. In European pet stores, customers would pay $100 or more for a box turtle.
A concern over declining populations has prompted wildlife authorities in 17 of the 28 states where they occur to promulgate laws and regulations to protect box turtles. In Alabama it is unlawful to collect box turtles or offer for sale a box turtle or any part of a box turtle for anything of value. The law would not make it unlawful to help a box turtle cross a road.
Because road mortality is a frequent cause of box turtle mortality, helping one to safely cross the road is helpful to the species’ survival. When I see one, I am careful to pull completely off the road and turn on my warning lights before attempting the rescue. I am also careful to head the turtle in the same direction it was attempting to travel. Otherwise it may turn around and crawl back onto the road.
Box turtles are what biologists call ‘k-selected species,’ which in nature have a very low reproductive potential but have a long life span. Female box turtles successfully produce no more than about two offspring that survive to adulthood every 50 years, on the average, but are capable of living up to 100 years. One box turtle is reported to have lived 138 years before it died.
So, if you see a box turtle on the road, please help it cross if you can do so without endangering yourself or other motorists.