Exactly why did the turtle cross the road?Why did the turtle cross the road? This isn’t one of those takes on the classic chicken jokes. My question is quite serious.
By: Jill Pertler, Superior Telegram
Why did the turtle cross the road? This isn’t one of those takes on the classic chicken jokes. My question is quite serious.
It’s summer, and for our highways that means one thing besides construction zones — road kill. We all witness our share of birds, squirrels, raccoons and deer. I’ve even seen — make that smelled — a dead skunk in the middle of the road. But, by and large, the unfortunate victims of late have been a different sort of critter — turtles.
I’ve come upon at least a dozen or so turtles, either trying to cross the road, or lying still and quiet after making what I assume was a valiant attempt to do so.
My family even encountered one instance of turtle migration up-close and personal. We found a four-inch painted turtle trying to cross the road near our lake cabin. Being the ecologically-oriented group that we are, we rescued him by carrying him back to the pond from which he came. He seemed to swim off eagerly, and we figured he’d just lost his way.
What a surprise it was the next day when we found him in exactly the same spot as we had 24 hours earlier — trying to cross a busy road. Again, we were rescuers, but this time our turtle didn’t escape without a nickname. We decided to call him “Mr. Wrongway” because of his obvious lack of direction.
The third day, we didn’t see Mr. Wrongway until it was too late. A car hit him, and his shell was irreparably cracked. He went from being Mr. Wrongway to Mr. Badluck, and we mourned his passing, which left us with the burning question:
Why did the turtle (try to) cross the road?
After much (interesting and diverse) family discourse on the matter, we decided reptiles are not suicidal, and in nature and there’s only one word to describe an act that on its surface appears to be somewhat similar to a death wish — instinct.
Instinct can make us do some pretty wacky stuff. Just look at the praying mantis and black widow spider; the females eat the males after mating. There’s a death wish of the worst kind.
But, back to turtles. By and large, instinct has to do with one key factor, proliferation of the species. In other words, animals do weird things so they can have babies. Still, the turtle’s behavior seemed counterintuitive. Instinct is supposed to help proliferate, not desecrate, a species.
I needed the truth, so I did a little research.
As it turns out, turtles do cross the road because of instinct. In early summer, they leave the comfort of their aquatic homes to seek out nesting sites to lay their eggs. This often involves crossing the hot, tarred road, which is not nearly as ancient as a turtle’s egg-laying behavior. Turtles have been laying their eggs a lot longer than we’ve been traveling at 50 miles per hour with the windows down. In other words, instinct outdates the Interstate.
My research also told me that our Mr. Wrongway wasn’t a Mr. at all. Only female turtles lay eggs. He was a she.
Predation on turtle nests is extremely high. Even if a turtle does make it across the road (and back) there is a good chance that a predator will find — and eat — the leathery-shelled eggs hidden in the earthen nest. Despite the hazards, some turtles beat the odds and hatch from their eggs late in the summer. They are tiny and vulnerable. After a time in the nest, they emerge to (you guessed it) cross the road in search of a watery home.
And the cycle begins anew. In three or four years, they’ll be ready to mate, which in turn means laying eggs, which in turn means crossing the road. Many will not make it. Some will.
Turtles have been around for thousands of years. They’ve faced surly predators, treacherous climates, and even hot, tarred roads. Through it all, they’ve persevered — slow and steady. It might not always win the race, but it certainly counts for something.
At least it does with my family. We’ve realized, a little too late, that things aren’t always what they seem. A turtle trying to cross the road may not be headed in the wrong direction. Most likely, instinct is telling her exactly where to go. And the next time we see her plodding along, we’ve decided to do just one thing: help her get to the other side.
Jill Pertler, award-winning syndicated columnist and author of “The Do-It-Yourselfer’s Guide to Self-Syndication” is collecting fans on Facebook on her Slices of Life page. Email her at email@example.com; or visit her website at http://marketing-by-design.home.mchsi.com.