New animal-crossing signs are popping up along the roads of York County, and in place of the typical silhouettes of deer and moose is the shape of a turtle.
“Turtles look very much today as they have for 200 million years,” said Phillip deMaynadier, biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife. “They survived the mass extinction that took out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Very few predators can break a turtle shell — until the car came along.”
State biologists are installing the yellow warning signs in strategic locations in Wells, South Berwick and York, alerting motorists to slow down and watch for jaywalking turtles.
“Turtles do what they’ve always done when they encounter a threat of a predator,” deMaynadier said. “When they crawl out in the road and feel the vibration of a car — a threat — they pull into their shell and stop. And that just doesn’t work with a car.”
“Turtles aren’t going to change their behavior quickly enough to adapt to cars,” he continued. “So we’re trying to change driver behavior to accommodate turtles.”
The DIF&W, in collaboration with The Nature Conservancy, is asking motorists to be on the lookout for turtles in roadways and to slow down upon spotting a new turtle crossing sign. Drivers who come across a turtle in the road and want to help are asked to pull over and, if it is safe to do so, move the turtle to the side of the road in the direction it was headed.
“The only turtle that can pose some risk to you if you pick it up is a snapping turtle,” deMaynadier said. “They’re called a snapping turtles for a reason.”
To shoo a snapping turtle from the road, he suggests walking slowly behind it.
The turtle crossing signs will only be posted during turtle nesting season, May-July, when Maine’s female turtles undertake risky overland forays to reach nesting areas. Biologists hope this will maximize the signs’ impact and reduce “sign fatigue,” a local driver’s tendency to ignore a sign that is displayed year round.
“The whole issue of turtle road mortality is pretty important statewide for all the species, it’s just that our resources as an agency are limited, so for now, we’re focusing on the endangered species,” deMaynadier said. “We envision expanding that effort throughout the state for not just endangered turtles, but also for other species in areas where there are high rates of documented mortality.”
Blanding’s and spotted turtles, both protected under Maine’s Endangered Species Act, can be easily identified.
The Blanding’s turtle has a long, bright yellow neck and a high-domed shell that curves out at the edges (often described as being helmet-shaped). It is one of the two species of turtles in Maine that has the ability to close itself into its shell as protection from predators, the other being the box turtle.
Many consider the spotted turtle to be Maine’s most attractive turtle, with its telltale orange polka dots decorating a smooth black shell and legs that sport bright orange, pink or reddish scales.
“They’re very popular in the pet trade, which is another stressor,” deMaynadier said. “They’re collected illegally.”
Both species have several things working against them in the modern day world.
“Spotted and Blanding’s turtles use vernal pools and pocket swamps and small shrub wetlands that tend to fall through the cracks of regulatory protection, so they’re often degraded or destroyed,” deMaynadier said.
And they move between these small wetlands throughout the year, causing them to cross roads.
In 2006, radio transmitters were placed of nearly 100 Blanding’s and spotted turtles in southern Maine in a study to learn how these turtles move between wetland habitats. The cooperative study by the University of Maine’s Wildlife Ecology Department and DIF&W was led by UMaine doctoral student Fred Beaudry, and the data gathered was used to identify the road crossing hot spots where the signs are being erected.
Though most abundant in southern York County, these two species have been seen living farther north — Blanding’s turtles as far as southern Androscoggin County, and spotted turtles as far as western Hancock County.
“A lot of species reach the end of their range in southern Maine,” said deMaynadier. “It’s actually a conservation conundrum.”
Southern Maine has the highest species diversity of plants and animals in the state, as well as the highest concentration of endangered and threatened species. This poses a challenge for conservationists because southern Maine also has the highest human population density and traffic volumes in the state, deMaynadier said.
Based on recent population modeling, researchers believe that if people are responsible for an increase of just 2-3 percent in the natural mortality rate of these endangered turtles (for example, by causing road mortality), the local population will crash over time.
Both Blanding’s and spotted turtles are extremely long-lived.
“They don’t become sexually mature until they’re teenagers — not unlike humans,” deMaynadier said. “But unlike humans, they experience very low reproductive success and very high nest mortality. The only way they can balance that out is very high adult survivorship, so they can try and try and try again … a Blanding’s can live to be able 75 years old or so, and in that 75 years, it may only replace itself with one or two adult offspring.”
The DIF&W shares turtle population data with land trusts, landowners and towns to help identify parcels of high conservation value.
“A lot of land that has been conserved in southern Maine has been done specifically with turtle conservation in mind,” he said.
Maine is home to seven native turtle species, as well as an eighth non-native species, the red-eared slider. Four of the eight species are of conservation concern, and that’s a pattern that’s reflected nationwide, deMaynadier said.
Funding for this project comes primarily from the Loon Conservation License Plate and donations to the state’s Chickadee Checkoff. Additional research support was provided by the Maine Department of Transportation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, The Nature Conservancy and the Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund.