Monday, August 31, 2009

Turtles have good reason to be nervous

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel August 31, 2009)

I scare turtles. I don't mean to. I certainly don't want to. But all I have to do is walk outside and turtles tremble. SPLISH! SPLASH! Two more of the hard-shelled creatures dive for cover.

The screen door is the real culprit — that and my preoccupied mind. Opened screen doors have a tendency to close loudly, especially if the person opening them (me) forgets to prevent the door from slamming. BANG! The wooden door swings shut. Another reptile dives for cover.

I live next to a turtle-dense lake. I don't know how many of the carapace-covered critters reside in our 12-acre pond, but I routinely see them basking on logs, rising to the surface for air and, occasionally, walking over land to lay their eggs.

Turtles are ancient beings that traversed the water-covered Earth during the time of most dinosaurs. There are 50 turtle species in North America, with 26 types in the Sunshine State. Of those 26, 18 types of turtles live in Florida's freshwater lakes and rivers. Fossil researchers report that most turtles look much the same now as they did 150 million years ago. The adage "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" applies to these well-designed lung-breathers.

The turtles I routinely frighten are usually sitting on top of a partly submerged oak log that I asked Ralph to place not far from our beach. My thinking was: (a) if he placed the log there, turtles would sit there and sun themselves (they do); and (b) if they came and sunned themselves, I'd be able to watch them while I'm on the beach (unfortunately, I can't).

My reasoning didn't take into account the self-preserving tendencies of an animal with a history spanning millions of years. If a turtle senses danger, its first instinct is to disappear. It does so by either retreating into its shell or diving into the water. The turtles sunning themselves on the oak log near our beach opt for an aquatic retreat.

I suppose they haven't gotten used to me yet. Ralph placed the log on the spit of land near the beach just a few months ago, and although the turtles discovered it almost immediately, they haven't been using it long enough to realize that I mean them no harm. These toothless reptiles have good reason to fear humans. Pollutants often contaminate their watery habitat, and much of it is lost to development. Although many animals prey upon mature turtles and eat their eggs, humans are their greatest threat. People hunt turtles for food, kill them for sport, harvest babies for the pet industry and run over them with cars and trucks. So much destruction has taken place for these remarkable creatures that the International Union for Conservation of Nature lists more than two-thirds of the world population of turtles as threatened.

In Florida, a regulation passed in July attempts to help waning turtle populations. The rule passed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission prohibits the commercial harvesting of freshwater turtles in public and private waters. It is the nation's most restrictive turtle-harvesting rule. Scientists hope the new regulation will give declining turtle populations a chance to rebound.

I hope so too. Any animal that has survived for millions of years deserves a chance to continue living into the next millennium. I don't like scaring turtles every time I thoughtlessly slam the screen door, but if these gentle creatures need to react to potential danger by disappearing into the water for a while, I'll understand. The important thing is that they don't disappear forever.

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