Local researcher works to improve turtle crossings

Thomas Brown on a Loggerhead turtle. From the State Library and Archives of Florida.

Imagine you are small. The world is vast, full of dangers and obstacles, and you are driven by instinct. But your habitat is shrinking. Where once you could move freely, unfamiliar obstacles now hamper your travels, presenting new kinds of predators evolution hasn’t equipped you to deal with.

A wide, black plane lies between you and your destination, and you have no choice but to cross it, even as a non-stop flux of giant, unrelenting beasts race across your path; in front and behind you,  deathly unaware of your presence. You can only cringe back in your shell and hope it will protect you.

You are an average North American box turtle, and you need to get across the road.

Figure 2. North American distribution of the ornate box turtle (adapted from Hammerson 1999, Map 8.3: Dodd 2001, Map 5; Stebbins 2003, Map 65). Green areas represent the current range of the ornate box turtle. The gray area represents an intergradation zone between this species and the desert box turtle (Ward 1978, Stebbins 1985, 2003). From "Ornate Box Turtle: a technical conservation assessment," 2006.

Missouri’s temperate, humid climate is a haven for reptiles, not least of which are 17 species of turtle who have particular trouble crossing motorways. Not only are turtles iconically slow, but they lack the ability to hop curbs and dodge traffic like some more agile mammals.

Dr. Brice Hanberry, a researcher for the University of Missouri’s forestry department, feels for the plight of the Columbia’s plentiful turtle population, and has begun championing the cause of turtle crossings in the Columbia area.

“I’ve never seen turtles like there are turtles here,” she says. Her travel record is impressive – from UC-Santa Cruz to Mississippi, and all the way to New Hampshire. Her anecdotal evidence for the plight of Columbia’s turtles echoes a sentiment of preventative action – deal with the issue of turtle crossing before it cripples the population.

“Right away, whenever we find turtles, we stop and pick them up,” says Hanberry. And she isn’t alone; it isn’t uncommon for drivers to stop and ferry turtles across the road before they find themselves in the path of a less attentive motorist.

Despite her efforts, though, Hanberry says it’s often too late. Everyday she sees turtles crossing Grindstone or Nifong, a number of which do not survive. Turtle shells just aren’t adapted to resist violent encounters with vehicles. Few things in nature are.

Reptiles have long flourished in Mid-Missouri, but species are not usually able to adapt quickly enough to the sudden (in the evolutionary sense) fragmentation of habitat. Suburban areas of Columbia still serve as terrain for wildlife, and it’s even thought that a large dirt pile on Grindstone may attract turtles as an egg-laying site.

Hanberry has explored solutions to the problem of turtle crossings, which include the installation of tunnels to prived safe passage underneath roads, or creating ramps or breaks in curbs that turtles might otherwise not be able to climb.

A project in Lake Jackson, Florida, called EcoPassage, oversaw the installation of road culverts in areas of prolific wildlife (some culverts already exist in places to channel water underneath roads). Guide walls direct animals safely through the underground passageways, where otherwise they might be forced to traverse a street or highway. It comes at the peril of not just animals needing to cross, but motorists not keen on adding to the mosaic of road kill.

The number of road kill incidents for heavily traversed motorways can be morbid – well into the hundreds, or even thousands of incidents for a given period of time – but in studies of barrier wall-culvert systems ecologists have shown that they are “very successful in reducing total road kill” in nearly every animal group. This sets an optimistic precedent for a similar initiative in Boone County.

Hanberry posits that if a council member from each city ward were to hear from 5 or 10 residents, the issue could be made into a priority. There is even an email residents can copy, sign and forward to their council representatives.

City councilmember Mary Stillwell, a figure behind Columbia’s chicken laws, has already begun working with Hanberry to move Columbia’s own turtle initiative forward. New laws would supplement possible grant opportunities Hanberry is seeking, which would allow for curb alterations at strategic locations around Columbia.

Culverts and barrier walls help re-route turtles underneath roads, but ramps or curb breaks would help already stranded turtles climb out. Hanberry noted that a Girl Scout project had already installed ramps and signs in a certain location, however she is seeking a permanent, city sanctioned solution.

Stay up to date with the latest turtle news by joining the Turtle Crossing COMO Facebook page.

– with reporting by Tina Casagrand

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