Roads are bad news for turtles, especially during the late spring when most turtles leave the water to lay their eggs. For species that forage on land, such as Wood Turtles, the problem is far worse. During the summer, Wood Turtles roam fertile floodplains in search of food, sometimes ending up more than several thousand feet from water, and are especially susceptible to being hit by cars because the same river valleys they call home are the easiest places to build roads. Indeed, most decent Wood Turtle streams are paralleled by at least one road, sometimes from end to end, and for a typical Wood Turtle population, all it takes is the loss of two turtles per year due to human causes for that population to be wiped out within 75 years. Toss in the fact that a large proportion of Wood Turtle habitat is mowed two or three times per year for hay and the prospects for many populations are grim. In one nearby town I have seen a grand total of 4 Wood Turtles in the past year. One was alive and healthy, but two were dead on the road. Today’s post is about the fourth, who was also hit by a car and severely injured, but who is now getting a second chance.
On May 16 I received a text from a friend regarding a turtle that was hit by a car, “Its shell is cracked and there is blood”, one of the texts read. She said it wasn’t a Painted Turtle, but maybe a snapper or woodie. I was skeptical at first about it being a Wood Turtle, given their rarity in that particular area, but the picture she sent cleared up any doubt. The injuries did not look too bad in the photo, but I had my friend hold onto it so I could assess its condition and determine if it could be released or if it needed medical attention. The situation turned out to be pretty bad.
My friend had originally moved the turtle off the road into a small wetland, and when she returned hours later it had only moved about 20 feet and was just sprawled out in the open – troubling behavior for Wood Turtles, which make a living out of being secretive. The turtle was old, possibly in her 60s or even older, and had a rather nasty split clean across her plastron, the front end of which was no longer attached to the rest of the shell, and the wound was packed with dirt and debris. While I have seen the scars of worse wounds on turtles that recovered on their own, the recovery is a very lengthy process and there is no telling what proportion end up dying from their injuries (in the field we usually only find the ones that survived). If the trauma itself does not kill the turtle, a secondary infection is very likely and that can kill them over the course of many months. After chatting with a reptile wildlife rehabilitator and Vermont Fish and Wildlife, the decision was made to patch the turtle’s shell back up, hold her for a little while, and release her back to the wild as soon as was reasonable, if she lived long enough.
The original plan was to take the turtle to our vet of record the next morning, but after consulting the reptile rehabilitator it was clear action needed to be taken to set the shell back in place immediately or risk a much more complicated procedure requiring surgery. To repair the shell without covering the wound (so it would be able to self clean), I applied a line of epoxy on each side of the fracture, mounted anchors to the glue, and then used a monofilament line to cinch the shell back together. Shortly after the wound stopped secreting fluids roughly 10 days later the temporary repair work was replaced with a solid layer of epoxy, reinforced with strips of a metal drywall patch to keep the shell from bending at the fracture, kind of like rebar.
Her first week in my care she was very lethargic, but when she began making escape attempts I became much more optimistic about her outlook. Only a few days after getting her long-term patch she was behaving like any other wild turtle would be expected to behave confined to a Rubbermaid bin, which is to say she was making a lot of noise in her non-stop attempt to obtain freedom. Given that her condition appeared stable and the repair work was complete, it was time to let her go.
Wood Turtles have a very strong connection to their home territories so it was important to bring her back to where she was found, despite the nearby road hazard. Putting her anywhere else would have likely resulted in her crossing many more roads in an attempt to get back home. Seventeen days after her traumatic injury, Miranda (named for the caring person who rescued her from the road) was brought back to the stream she came from and released into the wild. Before releasing her I attached a radio transmitter to her shell so I can keep tabs on the progress of her recovery, which may take up to two or three years.
There is a saying originally about dogs I think applies very nicely here. “Saving one [turtle] will not change the world, but surely for that one [turtle], the world will change forever”, but in this case, the benefits may extend well beyond this individual turtle. Despite her old age, she has the potential to live (and lay eggs) for several more decades, so her loss would have been a pretty big hit for the very small population she came from. The longevity of adults is absolutely critical to the viability of Wood Turtle populations, so her recovery may leave a lasting impact on the population from which she came.
Since her release, I have checked up on her several times to make sure she got her bearings and am pleased to report that I last saw her foraging in a patch of ferns on the opposite side of the river from where she was released, which is very promising. Interested in how she does? Stay tuned for updates, which will be posted via Facebook and Twitter @OrianneSociety with the hashtag, #MirandaTheTurtle