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Article updated: 6/21/2013 5:27 AM

Why turtles cross suburban roads (and get hurt)

By Robert Sanchez

Why are all those turtles crossing the road?

No joke, it really is to get to the other side.

It's that time of year when pregnant turtles are leaving their watery homes to look for higher and drier spots to lay their eggs.

Unfortunately, their travels often take them across roads and highways, putting them -- and sometimes motorists trying to avoid them -- in danger.

"When the females go up to nest, they are on a mission," said Kevin Luby, a naturalist with the Willowbrook Wildlife Center in Glen Ellyn. "They're going up to lay their eggs. And nothing really is going to deter them."

So forest preserve districts throughout the region are cautioning residents to pay closer attention to the road when they're driving.

"June is go time for turtle nesting," said Gary Glowacki, a wildlife biologist with the Lake County Forest Preserve District. "Just be on alert. Hopefully, the turtles make it across the road."

So far this year, experts at Willowbrook Wildlife Center have treated 54 injured turtles. Most were hit by cars or trucks.

By getting the word out, DuPage forest preserve officials are hoping to help secure safe passage for other turtles before their nesting season ends in mid-July.

Luby said it's up to motorists to do what they can because turtles have a primitive sense of hearing and can't process sounds from oncoming traffic or honking horns.

"That is not something they comprehend," he said. "There's very little going on in the brain of a turtle other than, 'I've got to dump these eggs.' She's looking for someplace suitable, and roadways don't count as any kind of deterrent."

About five years ago, McHenry County officials placed signs reading "Turtle Crossing" along Algonquin Road at the border of Lake in the Hills and Algonquin.

Jeff Young, assistant county engineer with the McHenry County Division of Transportation, says the signs appear to be paying off.

"The fact that people are aware of it has helped a lot," he said.

While it seems counterintuitive to us to cross a busy highway, experts point out the slow-moving reptiles might have been making the same journey for decades.

"A lot of these turtles have really high nest-site fidelity," Glowacki said.

"They go back to the same area to nest year after year. It doesn't matter if a road got put in between them. They are going to do what they can to get back to that spot."

Stressing that the turtles know exactly where they're going, Luby said people often make the false assumption that an animal is lost if it's crossing a road. If you turn a turtle around, it's simply going to try to cross the road again.

"We always recommend you put them on the side of the road that they're heading," Glowacki said.

"Don't put them where they came from."

Luby also emphasizes that no one should ever put themselves or others in danger by stopping to carry a turtle across a busy road.

In those situations, he suggests slowing down and putting on your vehicle's flashers to alert other drivers.

To move a turtle, pick it up with both hands, one on either side of the animal's body. Officials say lifting a turtle by the tail can damage its spinal cord.

Luby said no one should ever pick up a snapping or spiny soft-shell turtle. Both are large species that can become aggressive and bite when handled.

"If they feel like they've gotten a piece of your hide, they don't want to let go because that's their only defense," Luby said.

"So it's a dangerous game trying to mess with them. Just leave them be and don't try to move them."

So what should motorists do if they spot a turtle on the road but are too late to slow down and go around it? Luby suggests trying to straddle the turtle to avoid hitting it with a vehicle's tires.

"If they can make it go underneath the very center of their car," he said, "it would be better than underneath one side or the other of the car."

DuPage officials are advising anyone who finds an injured turtle to consult Willowbrook Wildlife Center. The facility, at 525 S. Park Blvd. in Glen Ellyn, cares for injured native species and strives to release them into wild spaces.

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