It’s Tough to Be a Turtle

Turtles just have the worst of luck when it come to nesting and surviving; and yet I suppose many of them do, because every year the scenario repeats itself.

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Rooke Lake, which is on the property where I live, is a beautiful, clean, spring and stream-fed lake, with a surprisingly healthy turtle population, as evidenced by the number of nests that appear every summer on the earthen dam. The dam provides the turtles with the perfect nesting sites. Well, almost perfect.

dam

On the left side of this photo of the dam, there are several pools and a stream, partially created by the spillway, and partially natural wetlands. Through the wetland area for perhaps 600 yards is another small pond, and a free-flowing creek.

The interesting thing about the dam, which seems to be a nesting-turtle magnet, is that there are nests on both sides of the dam. There are no nests on the flat top of the dam, only on both sides. So – are the marsh turtles coming up from the small pond and wetlands to nest on that side of the dam, and the lake turtles using the other side, or do they cross from side to side? Are there only snapping turtle nests, or are there others as well? I think others, because some are noticeably large and deep; while some are smaller and more shallow – probably from a much smaller painted turtle or one of the several other species in the lake.

Female turtles leave the water in the late spring/early summer to climb to a sunny place where they are able to dig a hole in the soil. They deposit their eggs in the hole, cover it up, and return to the water. The sun warms the soil and incubates the eggs. Upon hatching, the baby turtles dig their way to the surface and head for the water.

turtlenest

Although the Rooke dam appears to be a favorite nesting location – it isn’t a particularly safe one. Nearly every nest falls victim to predation by raccoons, opossums, foxes, skunks, coyotes, bears, and probably a few other predators. All along the dam, nest after nest has been raided, and the remnants of pilfered turtle eggs are curling and drying in the sun.

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It’s a sad scene, and one that repeats every year. I wonder if any of the young have survived? I don’t see how they could – the devastation seems complete. Years ago, attempts were made to protect the nests by placing wire cages over them. Such an attempt wouldn’t work now, because it would only take a bear about a second to push such a cage out of its way.

When I lived in Florida, I had the opportunity to help monitor sea turtle nests on the beaches. We would watch for turtle tracks in the sand – they come onshore at night – and cage and mark the nests. Since there are no large predators on Florida beaches except people, protective cages worked well for many nests, protecting them from raiding raccoons and gulls. After hatching, we would dig out the nest to be sure all the babies made it to the surface – and the water. It was an amazing thing to hold a sea turtle about the size of a half-dollar in my hand, and feel the strength of the little flippers that would first propel the turtle through the beach sand to the water. If the turtle made it safely to the water, its flippers would then work hard for the next 24 hours or so, until the turtle reached the relative safety of the sargassum (a floating seaweed) beds, where the hatchling would spend several years – until it grew large enough to be too big for most predators. The odds of a hatchling making it that far are astronomical..I can’t remember the exact figures but they were something like 2 of every 2000 hatchlings survives.

I’ve had a soft spot for bably turtles ever since, and my heart aches for the failed nests on our dam. I suppose some must survive, because turtles keep coming to lay eggs in the warm soil. Like they said in one of those Jurassic Park movies – “Life finds a way.”

5 Responses to “It’s Tough to Be a Turtle”

  1. KGMom Says:

    A very interesting and informative post.
    I think you must be right–would the turtles keep coming back out of sheer instinct to nest where the eggs get destroyed? Maybe.

  2. Nina Says:

    I was thrilled to “catch” a turtle in the act of laying eggs last Friday. Like you, I usually only find unearthed nests all around the pond–amazing that any even survive and hatch!
    She was a painted turtle, and as soon as she covered it, i went back and covered it, too–with a grate that should keep the predators out.
    According to what I’ve looked up, painted turtles usually hatch at about 72 days (?)–I’m waiting and watching!!

  3. mon@rch Says:

    Without a doubt these turtles always have a hard time! I have also been seeing many of the turtles eggs being dug up!

  4. obi4240 Says:

    Nina – lucky you! I’ve never been able to witness the egg-laying.

    KGMom – I’m sure it’s probably all instinct that keeps them coming back. Of course, the momma’s never look back once they deposit the eggs, so what do they care?

    Monarch – It looks like total destruction here..no survivors. Sad.

  5. Cat Says:

    What a nice post. I have 7 painted turtles and a baby red eared slider and we just dug a pond in the backyard for them this year as they are getting too big to be indoors. Well one of my females layed eggs 3 days ago and I got to watch the whole process too! How eggciting!!


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