Why did the turtle cross the road? We may never reach a definitive answer, but one thing we know for sure is that close encounters with cars are one of the foremost threats to turtle populations. As more land is developed, forest and wilderness shrink, and turtles find their habitats crisscrossed by roads. Many don’t survive their attempts to cross.
One well-known turtle native to New Jersey is the Eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina). They have been sighted on Hunterdon Land Trust’s Muddy Run Preserve in Kingwood Township. While box turtles are common in the eastern US, their population has steadily declined in New Jersey, largely due to habitat loss and being struck by cars. Their decline is particularly troubling because the Eastern box turtle plays an important role in forest regeneration.
Box turtles, like many other freshwater turtles, are omnivores and eat a wide variety of things, but most important for our forests are the fruits and seeds that they eat. Turtles are important agents of seed dispersal; it has been shown that seeds of certain plants that pass through a box turtle’s digestive system are more likely to germinate. These plants include black cherry, mayapple, summer grape, and Jack-in-the-pulpit.
Box turtles are also extremely helpful in controlling garden pests, as their diet also includes a variety of insects, slugs, and snails. They are fond of vegetables, so if you recruit box turtles to help with garden pest control, be sure to place a low barrier around plants you don’t want them munching on.
To encourage box turtles into your garden, try to mimic their natural habitat. Box turtles usually inhabit open woodlands and meadows near streams or ponds. Cultivate plants with native fruits they like, such as huckleberry, elderberry, blackberry, American persimmon and frost grape. Leave leaf litter beneath trees for them to forage and hide in, and provide them with a moist area such as a pond or rain garden, and a sunny area for them to bask in. Inviting turtles into your garden is a good way to protect your plants and conserve habitat for an important native species.
If you do see a turtle crossing the road, you can help out by carefully carrying it across, but be careful! If you see a large turtle with a big pointed head and a long tail, it’s most likely a snapping turtle and should be left alone. If you do decide to move a turtle, make sure you place it on the side of the road it was heading towards, or else it’s likely to turn around and try to cross again. Once it’s safely across, pull out your smartphone and upload a picture to HLT’s interactive Community Map!
— By Stefani Spence, Land Steward.