Having a turtle appear in your yard may be a great opportunity to observe and learn from these incredible species. But for people with dogs or other potential dangers in their yards, this may be a stressful situation. That brings us to the question of the day: can you move a turtle off your property? Can you carry it over to the wooded area down the street, or to the swamp in the nearby park? You’d think that moving the turtle to a ‘better habitat’, somewhere you find more suitable for them, would be the best course of action. However, contrary to our “instinct” this is actually may not be the safest or best thing for the turtle, and while a complex issue, relocation can threaten a turtle’s survival.
As with any wild animal, a turtle found on your property should be left alone as much as possible. Most of Ontario’s turtles have small territories that contain everything they need to survive. For example, a Blanding’s Turtle’s home range typically only extends a few kilometers (Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks, 2021). Turtles learn from a young age where to forage, nest, and hibernate, areas to which many will show fidelity, returning year after year, for the rest of their lives (Mid-Atlantic Turtle & Tortoise Society, 2022). A study by Aaron R. Krochmal and Timothy Roth in Washington of Western painted turtles at their research site; a patchwork of old growth woodlands and agricultural fields,found that turtles will follow “long, intricate routes with amazing precision—specific to within a few meters—to far-off, permanent water sources year after year, returning home again when the seasons next change”.
When relocated to a new area, a turtle is no longer familiar with its surroundings, and can have difficulty navigating the new area to find food or other essentials such as safe and stable hibernation sites (Vanorio, 2021). When relocated to a new area, a turtle will most often attempt to find its way home. Unfortunately, turtles can then die of starvation or will perish due to other hazards (roads, construction, predators) in their attempt to get back home (Vanorio, 2021; Mid-Atlantic Turtle & Tortoise Society, 2022).
A study to examine effects of relocation on eastern box turtles (Terrapene carolina), in North Carolina compared home ranges and movement patterns of 10 resident and 10 relocated box turtles. The study found that home ranges of relocated turtles were approximately significantly larger than resident turtles and that relocated turtles also moved a greater average distance per day than resident turtles. Additionally, 5 relocated turtles experienced mortality or disappearance compared to no mortality or disappearance of resident turtles (Hester et al).
Another study of the eastern box turtle was carried out for over thirty years at the Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia showed that relocated did not do as well in the first years, but those that did survive, were on par with resident turtles. Therefore, as a rescue strategy for populations where existing native turtles are resident, relocation may be a recourse however, individuals may suffer (Orr et al). Instances, however, where there are no significant numbers of resident turtles can be a different story entirely for newcomers’ survival as any existing habitats may not be adequate, available, suitable, and the necessary cues (social or biological such as pheromone) may also be lacking to assist in relocation success.
Therefore, while not always a death sentence, often the dangers that turtles face, both after being relocated and when attempting to return home, are a serious threat to their survival (Farnsworth and Seigel, 2013).
Moving Turtles off the Road
Roads often intersect existing turtle territories, resulting in turtles being at risk of mortality from cars, predation by animals who thrive in disturbed areas, and poachers. These threats are especially prevalent during periods of turtle migration in spring when moving from hibernation sites, during nesting season and again in the fall when returning to hibernation areas . Many females use road shoulders to lay their eggs, as the conditions there are usually favorable, and therefore there is often a crescendo of activity on roads during nesting season.
Roads pose the highest threat to freshwater turtles in North America, and more than 60% of these shelled allies are at risk of extinction because of road mortality and habitat losses.
Therefore, it is advisable and encouraged to help turtles off the roads when they are crossing the tarmac, and in the direction that they are going- and only if it is safe for you and other drivers on the road. Please note however that any assistance to turtles should be given after observing the situation to ensure that you are doing what is best for the turtle and for your own safety (Pulfer, 2021); If the turtle is nesting (this will look like she is digging with her back legs), please do not move the turtle, but keep an eye on her for safety until she finishes. Watch the female who has just finished nesting to see where she plans to go. Often females will simply make a large U-turn back to the natural area behind her after nesting. However, if she is indeed crossing the road, you can assist the turtle directly or accompany the turtle to reach the other side safely. Turtle Guardians has videos to teach you how to hold and help snapping turtles and other freshwater turtles.
You can also help save turtle nests in these situations: When the turtle has finished nesting and she is out of harm’s way, place a light object (a hat, cloth, glove) on top of the nest, note the location using your smartphone or by taking a picture with identifying features and call Turtle Guardians at 705-854-2888. Often the organization can send a trained individual to either protect (with a nest cage) or excavate (under permit) the nest so that the eggs can be incubated in a safe location.
As stated above, always move a turtle in the same direction that it was heading, to avoid having it turn around and head back onto the road once again (Pulfer, 2021; Mid-Atlantic Turtle & Tortoise Society, 2022). It's best to place a turtle about 30 feet from the road, so the turtle is away from road dangers and does not turn back if startled. For more information on how to help a turtle cross the road, please visit our website at www.turtleguardians.com/helping-a-turtle-across-the-road/, here you can find helpful resources on how to safely transport turtles!
It may be tempting to move a turtle to a better, or seemingly more suitable, habitat further down the road or to the wetland down the street from your house, but the best thing you can do for the turtle’s survival is to move them the shortest distance possible across the road and leave them be if they are on your property (Mid-Atlantic Turtle & Tortoise Society, 2022).
Written by Kiara Duval. Edited by Leora Berman
Blanding's turtle. (2021, August). Retrieved February 01, 2022, from https://www.ontario.ca/page/blandings-turtle
Effects of Relocation on Movements and Home Ranges of Eastern Box Turtles. April 2008. Journal of Wildlife Management 72(3):772 - 777, JOY M. HESTER, Steven J. Price and Michael E. Dorcas
Long-term comparison of relocated and resident box turtles, Terrapene carolina carolina JOHN M. ORR1*, CARL H. ERNST & TIMOTHY P. BOUCHER2
Mid-Atlantic Turtle & Tortoise Society. (2022). Helping turtles cross roads. Retrieved February 01, 2022, from http://www.matts-turtles.org/helping-turtles-cross-roads.html
Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks. (2021, March). General habitat description for the Blanding’s turtle (Emydoidea blandingii). Retrieved February 1, 2022, from https://files.ontario.ca/mecp-blandings-turtle-general-habitat-description-en-2021-04-20.pdf
Pulfer, T. (2021, August 17). How you can help turtles cross the road. Retrieved February 01, 2022, from https://ontarionature.org/how-you-can-help-turtles-cross-the-road/
Vanorio, A. (2021, October 14). There is no place like home – turtle homing instincts. Retrieved February 01, 2022, from https://www.foxrunenvironmentaleducationcenter.org/new-blog/2019/4/13/there-is-no-place-like-home-turtle-homing-instincts
How a Painted Turtle Finds Its Way, Unlike many species, this common reptile migrates from memory, Scientific American, Timothy Roth, Aaron R. Krochmal January 30, 2019