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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Talking of turtles

Tom Emery
Posted 5/25/22

REGIONAL—Here’s something you probably didn’t know. This past Monday, May 23, was World Turtle Day. You may have missed all the hullabaloo, but any day is a good time to celebrate …

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Talking of turtles

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REGIONAL—Here’s something you probably didn’t know. This past Monday, May 23, was World Turtle Day.
You may have missed all the hullabaloo, but any day is a good time to celebrate turtles in Minnesota. With over 15,000 lakes and many more ponds and marshes, Minnesota is home to lots of turtles, and a total of nine species.
Biologists and herpetologists are working to ensure the long-range future of the state’s turtles, and note that the general public can do much to help.
“Turtles in Minnesota face many threats,” said Christopher Smith, the Conservation Committee chair for the Minnesota Herpetological Society. “That includes habitat loss, pollution, water quality, and road mortality, when turtles are hit on roads and highways. There’s also the commercial turtle harvest, which is a big issue that we’re trying to work with the Legislature on.”
Species of turtles are found statewide in Minnesota, though the southeast region has the largest concentrations of turtles. “To most folks, the most common turtle in the state is the painted turtle,” noted Smith. “They’re found in both urban and more natural environments. But the snapping turtle is also fairly abundant.”
Turtles play valuable roles in Minnesota ecosystems. Given that most turtles are semi-aquatic, they move energy and nutrients from aquatic to terrestrial environments, and vice versa. “They’re like nature’s janitors for wetlands, because they consume aquatic vegetation and dead or dying fish,” said Smith.
As elsewhere, Minnesota turtles face a number of challenges, including on roadways, where turtles are commonly found in warmer weather.
“There are several reasons why turtles are on the roads,” said Smith. “One is their movement between their winter and summer habitats. Another is the nesting season, when female turtles start moving across upland habitats, to look for areas to nest. Since many roads are often elevated from the surrounding landscape, the shoulders of the roads create a gravelly surface, which is actually good nesting habitat for a lot of turtles.
“Also, hatchling turtles that emerge near a road is another issue,” continued Smith. “The little turtles try to move to some wetland environment, and they end up on the road while they’re doing it.”
Smith stresses that the biology of a turtle is different than other fish and game species. “They live for so long, much longer than many other animals,” said Smith. “A lot of turtles can live for fifty or more years, unlike other animals, whose lifespans are much less. Turtles are pretty slow to mature, and they may not lay their first bunch of eggs from eight to ten, or even twenty years.
“So if they crawl out of their wetlands and get hit by cars, that’s decades of reproductive potential that is lost,” said Smith. “The same is true when they’re commercially harvested.”
Smith adds that turtles have few natural predators, or natural risks. “But when humans began changing the landscape, that was bad for turtles,” he said, “because it creates higher levels of mortality. Things are really looking pretty dire for a lot of turtles in the long run.”
There are many ways that citizens can protect the turtles of Minnesota. “One big way is to make sure that turtles have good base habitats,” commented Smith. “Property owners, particularly along lakeshores, can make sure that there are plenty of natural vegetations, and keep pollutants out of the water. There’s also the Minnesota Turtle Crossing Tally and Count Project, where citizens collect data from turtles on roadways to minimize the impact on turtles. That’s been a really important project, and a good way for people to get involved.
“From a ground advocacy standpoint, we also need to make sure our voice is heard, that turtles are important,” continued Smith. “Speak out for the turtles, and the research funding and policy changes that are needed. Let your representatives know how much we value turtles in Minnesota.”

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