So you’ve found a turtle on a road. Now what? This is a very common question, and it is no secret that roads pose major issues for all kinds of wildlife, turtles included. Turtles are slow on land, and when startled, tend to just hide in their shells rather than flee, so unlike a squirrel that may try to get away from an oncoming vehicle, a turtle is going to just to sit there, which isn’t a great strategy when 4,000+ pounds of steel is coming your way at 60 miles per hour. Because turtles live decades, sometimes more than a century, and have relatively low reproductive rates, the survival and longevity of adults, especially females, is absolutely critical to the survival of their populations. If a female is killed at the age of 20 instead of 80, that’s 60 years of egg laying down the drain, and unfortunately for most turtle species, it is the females that are most impacted by roads. In some cases they may just cross roads in their quest to find a good nesting spot (and once more on their way back), and in others they are attracted to the roads themselves and may nest along the road margins. Some species, such as Wood and Box Turtles, forage on land and can travel considerable distances during the summer, so males can take a heavy hit too. Regardless of the species or what brought it to the road, the question of what to do when you find a turtle crossing that road has the same answer. If you can do so safely, just help it cross to whatever side of the road it was headed, even if the direction the turtle is headed doesn’t make sense to you. Over 95% of the time that is the best thing to do.
You may be tempted to take the turtle somewhere else, somewhere “better”, perhaps to a pond on your property or a nature preserve at the other end of town. Or, you may simply think the turtle is headed the wrong way and put it back on the side you think it belongs. What you may not know, however, is that turtles are notoriously smart, spatially aware, and stubborn animals that move across the landscape with great purpose and deliberation. When adult turtles cross roads, they most likely already know what’s on the other side and are headed that way for a reason. Once turned around, odds are they will just try to cross again later that same day. And, more importantly, turtles form very deep connections with their habitat and usually don’t fare too well when moved to new locations. Some, especially terrestrial species, have exceptional navigational abilities and will try to walk back to their home with compass-level precision, even after being moved many miles. If their return trip involves crossing more roads, their odds of survival are poor, so moving them isn’t really a favor.
You should treat turtles on roads the same way you would treat an elderly (lucid) person at a busy intersection who is having trouble crossing. Don’t take them home. Don’t dump them at the nature preserve at the other end of town. Just help them across the road. While either of my grandmothers would have been delighted at being brought to some random pond, neither would stay there for more than a few hours and would eventually try to get back home, just like a turtle. Once moved somewhere else, if a turtle can’t find its way back home and decides to settle, it may have a very hard time learning how to find food and other resources (I liken this to learning a second language as an adult – adult turtles lose the ability to learn new tricks at a certain age). And imagine trying to shoo someone’s grandma back off the road in the other direction – what if they were walking to the pharmacy? They still have unfinished business on the other side of the road and will try again once you leave, just like a turtle. When it comes to roads, turtles, just like the seniors in my analogy, just need help, not a new home. Also, that turtle might be older than your granny anyway.
But, there are exceptions. If the turtle is injured, it may need to be brought to a wildlife rehabilitator or veterinarian. This only applies if the injury is recent. Turtles often have large scars on their shells from old injuries and may even be missing a leg or two, but that doesn’t mean it needs help. If the turtle is bleeding or has an open gash in the shell that is obviously fresh, it probably needs help, but make sure to take notes about exactly where it was found so you or the rehabber can return it to its home after treatment. If the injury is old and healed, the turtle really doesn’t need help.
Another notable exception is that you may sometimes find escaped pets that are not native to the area. If you aren’t sure, just do a google search for “turtle species in my state” and if the turtle in question does not look similar to any local species, it may be exotic. While you may not get an immediate response, Facebook groups such as Turtle Identification can help (you might as well join the group now so you don’t need to wait for membership approval when you need a quick answer). Most released pets on roads will be some kind of tortoise or Box Turtle, but you may find Red-eared Sliders too, which are an invasive species in many parts of the world. Guidance on what to do if you find a slider varies widely from state to state and they are native in much of the south. If they are invasive in your area it is best to reach out to your state fish and wildlife department for guidance on what to do if you find one.
The last common exception is when the turtle in question is in the process of laying eggs. If she is an aquatic turtle and the nearest water is on the same side of the road, then she may be best off if you just leave her alone. When she is done laying, she will head back home afterwards without venturing farther onto the road. If the road is between her and water, however, it may be wise to keep an eye on her if you can and help her back once she covers the nest and starts to leave, but the process may take many hours so that may only be practical if it is near your home.
For the sake of your health and safety, please only attempt to help turtles cross a road if it is safe for you to do so. Parking on the side of a busy 4-lane highway and darting out in front of traffic to save a turtle is not worth the risk. Some turtles may also be tricky to handle safely, such as large Snapping Turtles which will not hesitate to bite, but thankfully this video has some great tips on how to get a snapper from point A to point B with relative ease.
So that’s it. If you find a turtle on a road and want to help, just move it to the side it was headed if you can do so safely, unless it was recently injured or you have strong reason to believe it may be someone’s pet. Exceptions to these guidelines are few and far between. And, while you’re at it, snap a picture so you can submit your observation to your state wildlife department, reptile and amphibian atlas, or an apps such as iNaturalist or HerpMapper so your sighting might one day contribute to scientific studies or plans to restore and conserve habitat.