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Down the Road

Saving the turtle
By Milt Gross
Jun 22, 2014 - 10:25:29 PM

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A Painted Turtle charges across our lawn. Dolores Bernier photo.
Last week Dolores did what she has never done before, saving a turtle.

She saved the same Painted Turtle a few days later from the same fate, being run over while it galloped across the road.

Then this week, tackling ever larger game, she rescued a snapping turtle from the same fate of being run over while either crossing or napping in the sun on the road. I had earlier warned my good ex-New Yorker wife to not pick up any large turtles, because they could be snappers.

She heeded my advice and rescued it with a shovel. Mr. Snapper grabbed hold of the shovel, and Mrs. Dolores pulled it across the road where it would be safe from speeding vehicles.

Speeding vehicles and our road don't exactly go together, as the speed limit here is 35 miles per hour -- for vehicles, not turtles. We haven't seen a police officer enforcing that speed limit, since I had invited one to park in our dooryard a couple of years ago. That officer had parked, chatted with me a few moments, and, as I walked to the house, took off after the first speeder.

None since. The police sit at the same variety of locations throughout our town, not near our house, of course, where those motorists in the know carefully slow so as to not become victims of speed enforcement.

So the turtles have to tread carefully -- or be aided by Dolores.

Why they want to cross the street in the first place remains a mystery, unless, as I suggested above, they really want to nap in the warm sun on the road. Guess turtle moms don't teach their offspring not to cross the road by themselves -- or to look both ways before they do.

One thing about our turtles may be saving them from our indoor (when it rains/outdoor cat when its warm and sunny), is that they don't run from Tom. Tom loves to chase little things that run from him. Once he caught a red squirrel, and Dolores made him let it go. He, Tom, not the squirrel, gave Dolores a dirty look. Why was she spoiling his fun?

One turtle I encountered gave me a bout of nervousness. I was walking on a path across an open field in Acadia National Park, when I came across a giant snapper blocking the way. I asked it to get out of the way. It ignored me in a way only turtles can. So, I tiptoed around it, leaving a good four feet between my walking shoes and Mr. Snapper. He eyed me as I went around him, but he didn't charge or even growl.

Maybe snappers can't growl.

On another heroic occasion, I stopped my car on Eagle Lake Road on Mount Desert Island, and helped a snapper finish crossing the road. I can't recall what tool I used, but he did finish his across-road trek. I got back in the car and continued. I noticed on that turtle-saving adventure, that other cars slowed and kind of eased past. They knew the dangers involved had that snapper grabbed their cars and bitten down.

Yesterday, when I was having my watch battery replaced, the jeweler, who lives on our road, told me there are lots of turtles in the woods alongside our road. They come from the pond down in the woods, he said.

Okay, so where have they been hiding all the years we've lived here?

The jeweler also told me he picks up snappers -- brave guy -- by touching their noses with something besides his finger, and when they pull their nose in they are somehow paralyzed. He then just picks them up and moves them.

Has anyone ever thought of starting a moving turtle business?

Just to show I know how to do research on the internet, I looked up turtles and found the animal planet site, animalplanet.com. Below I have copied several paragraphs about turtles. After I read them, I commented to myself, "I didn't know that."

Did you?

That Shell isn't What it Seems

Chelonians' shells look a little like human body armor, so one might conclude that they're reptilian versions of the powered exoskeleton that makes Iron Man such a fearsome superhero. But the shell, which is made up of about 50 different bones, actually is an evolutionary modification of the rib cage and part of the vertebral column. And contrary to what you may have seen in animated cartoons, a chelonian can't take off its shell and crawl out of it -- just as you couldn't dismantle your own spine and ribs, according to the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology.

The shell itself actually has two parts: an upper section, the carapace, and a lower portion called the pastron, which are joined by a bony bridge. Some turtles have a moveable joint, usually in the plastron, that acts as a hinge and enables the creature to pull the two shell sections together tightly while it retracts its body inside. Shells have nerves embedded in them and a blood supply as well, so if a chelonian's shell is injured, it may bleed and feel pain.

Tortoises Orbited the Moon Before Astronauts Did

In September 1968, the Soviet Union launched the space probe Zond 5 on a mission to orbit the moon and test conditions as a prelude to a possible lunar mission by cosmonauts. In addition to a life-size human mannequin equipped with radiation detectors, the spacecraft carried a number of living passengers, including a pair of Russian tortoises that newspaper reports initially described as "turtles." After a week in space, Zond 5 returned to Earth and, despite a failure of crucial altitude detectors, successfully splashed down in the Indian Ocean.

Along with the other creatures, the tortoises were rescued and brought back to the Soviet Union for study. The Soviets revealed that the tortoises had lost about 10 percent of their body weight, and showed an "excessive content" of glycogen and iron in their liver tissue and some changes in their spleens. Otherwise, though, the tortoises remained active and showed no loss of appetite, according to NASA.

Alligator Snapping Turtles Lure Prey With Their Tongues

One of the most fearsome Chelonians around is the alligator snapping turtle, Macroclemys temminckii, which is the biggest freshwater turtle in North America. It can grow to 2.5 feet long, can weigh as much as 200 pounds, and has powerful jaws, a sharply-hooked beak, nasty bearlike claws and a muscular tail. The alligator snapping turtle does eat some aquatic plants, but it's mostly a carnivore that dines on a variety of smaller creatures -- fish, frogs, snakes, worms, clams, crayfish and even other turtles.

The alligator snapping turtle catches prey by way of a fiendishly clever evolutionary adaptation: an appendage to its tongue that, when wriggled, looks an awful lot like a worm, according to the Saint Louis Zoo. A fish who gets fooled by the turtle's tongue will swim right into range of the hungry predator's jaws.

They Make Sounds, Even Though They Lack Vocal Cords

Chelonians can make sounds by swallowing or by forcing air out of their lungs, and some species emit unique noises. The red-footed tortoise (Chelonoidis carbonaria), a South American species, makes a series of clucks that sound like a chicken. Male Travancore tortoises (Indotestudo forstenii) in Southeast Asia emit a high-pitched whine that sounds like an electric motor when they're seeking mates. The giant musk turtle (Staurotypus salvinii), which is found in Central America, is known for yelping like a dog when it's startled or being attacked.

But the weirdest sound is made by nesting female leatherback sea turtles (Dermochelys coriacea), who make a distinctly unladylike noise that resembles a human belching, according to the book Turtles: An Extraordinary Natural History 245 Years in the Making.

Males Select Potential Mates By Sniffing Tails

OK -- so humans shouldn't really talk, since we have some pretty silly mating behavior of our own, including selecting potential partners on the basis of their dancing ability or zodiac sign. In comparison, perhaps male chelonians' method of sniffing under other female chelonians' tails is relatively sensible, not to mention functional.

Since both males and females' sexual organs are hidden inside their cloaca, a cavity used for both reproduction and eliminating waste, humans have trouble telling by sight which shelled creature is female and which is male. Turtles and tortoises, however, possess an extremely keen sense of smell. According to Turtles: An Extraordinary Natural History 245 Years in the Making, males apparently can detect the scent of pheromones, a type of identifying chemical, that is secreted inside a female's cloaca. Chelonians rely on scent so heavily that a male red-footed tortoise once was observed trying to mount a head of lettuce that a female had just climbed over, according to the book Behavior of Exotic Pets.

They Don't Have Ears, But Can Perceive Low-Pitched Sounds

You may have heard that turtles and tortoises, which lack an ear opening, are deaf, but that's not completely accurate. It's true that chelonians can't hear anywhere near as well as humans and many other species can. But they can detect certain types of sounds. Scientists who've used light microscopes to study the ear structure of marine turtles, for example, have found that their middle ears have a very thick eardrum-like membrane, which limits the frequency range they can perceive. But that adaptation is extremely efficient for bone conduction hearing at low frequencies, according to Behavior of Exotic Pets.

According to reptile expert Melissa Kaplan, Chelonians generally can perceive sounds in the 50 to 1,500 Hz range, compared to the typical human hearing range of 20 to 20,000 Hz. Our hard-shelled friends also can't differentiate loudness as well as we can. The spotted turtle (Clemmys guttata), for example, has a peak sensitivity of just 4 dB, compared to 120 dB in humans. The upshot is that while turtles and tortoises may not be able to appreciate, say, the nuances of Mahler's "Symphony No. 2," their sense of hearing is good enough to detect the presence of predators.

Turtles Breathe Without A Diaphragm

Most air-breathing vertebrates draw air in and out of their lungs using a diaphragm, which is a muscle that contracts and relaxes with each breath to expand the ribs. It's pretty easy to tell when one's breathing because its body moves. But turtles don't have a diaphragm, which is all well and good, since the rigidity of their shells would prevent their ribs, which are connected to them, from expanding. Instead, turtles must move their limbs or neck, and utilize other muscles connected to the pleural cavity (the area around the lungs), to help them breathe.

Some turtles also have special muscles situated between their limbs and lungs to aid in breathing, or they have an additional breathing-related trick that allows them to remain underwater for longer periods. According to the book Turtles: An Extraordinary Natural History 245 Years in the Making, some turtles use buccopharyngeal breathing, in which they take water into their mouths and then pass it out of their nostrils. Along the way, the oxygenated water passes along the capillary-rich tissue inside their necks, allowing additional oxygen to enter directly into the bloodstream.


Milt Gross can be reached for corrections, harassment, or other purposes at lesstraveledway@roadrunner.com.

Milton M. Gross Copyright 2014


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