Monday, May 20, 2013

Turtle reproduction efforts versus human curiosity

A softshell turtle prepares to dig a hole in the soft sand to lay eggs

Simply Living

Before leaving the property to do errands in town, we stopped at the barn so Ralph could look for some tools he needed.  While my husband searched, I waited in the car wondering if this unexpected delay would be long enough for me to read a few more pages of the novel I’d brought along for just such a situation. 

I decided it was and had turned to my bookmarked page when I heard a shout:

 “Come quick and bring the camera!”

Putting down my book and picking up the camera, I opened the door, slid out and ran to where Ralph stood next to the barn by the dirt driveway.  He was pointing to an animal with a long, thick neck.

At first, I didn’t know what I was looking at.  A tan appendage about the size and shape of an adult forearm with fingers curled into a fist protruded from the sand.  My first thought was, snake.  Then it dawned on me.

“It’s a turtle laying eggs!”  I said, stating the obvious.  “Geesh!  Could she have picked a worse spot, right in the middle of the driveway?”

The soft sand in the driveway made digging easy

The turtle, a Florida softshell (Apalone ferox), was taking advantage of a sandy section of roadway to deposit eggs.  This odd-looking aquatic resident of the Sunshine State rarely leaves water except to bask in the sun or when the female’s internal clock tells her it’s time to reproduce.  Then, following nature’s command, she crawls ashore to seek out a suitably sun-warmed spot to deposit and bury a clutch of up to 30 one-inch diameter oval-shaped, white eggs.

I had to wonder what instinct directed this particular turtle to select a well-traveled dirt driveway for her offspring’s nest.  Sure, the location was sunny to aid incubation and the white sand made digging easy, but the fact that cars and trucks regularly rode over the spot made the choice less than sensible. 

Apparently, sensibility was not part of the equation as the serving-platter-size reptile proceeded to push aside dirt with her massive webbed claws.

“Look how fast she’s digging!”  Ralph exclaimed.  “Find something to protect the nest so no one will run over it.”

I grabbed two chairs from a nearby gazebo, placing one in front and the other behind the rapidly expanding hole.

The Florida softshelled turtle is easy to identify.  As far as size goes, it’s large.  Females are about two-feet long with males about half as big.  Instead of having a hard shell like most turtles, the carapace covering the softshell has the look and feel of wrinkled leather and because its tan-to-brown body is more flat than convex, some people call it a “pancake turtle.”

Its long, thick neck supports a head that resembles a moray eel with broadly spaced eyes and a porcine snout.  The three webbed claws on each of its strong, stout feet enable the turtle to swim swiftly through water and be a speed demon on land. 

The first time I saw a softshell turtle in Florida was shortly after we had moved here from Massachusetts and were driving down a two-lane bordering a nature preserve in Kissimmee.  Suddenly a turtle-like creature started to cross the road ahead of us.  In a panic, I hit the brakes.  As it turned out, I needn’t have worried.  With unexpected speed, the odd-looking animal traversed both lanes well before our car was within striking distance.  Once it was safely off the road, we pulled over too.  Our kids were little back then and we simply sat there awestruck. 

“What kind of strange animal was that?” we wondered.  “It looked like a turtle but didn’t move like any turtle we’ve ever seen before.”

Fast forward 25 years later and I’m still awestruck.

Not only can this reptilian anomaly move fast on land and water, it can dig a hole quickly too.  What it doesn’t seem to like, however, is being gawked upon at close quarters by enthralled humans.

Curiosity got the best of us despite our attempts to be mere observers. 

As we edged closer to see if the hole contained any eggs yet, the turtle stopped digging, extended her impressively thick neck and gave us the evil eye.  She stayed stretched out and still for a few seconds as if she was considering her options.  Moments later - decision made - she headed back to the lake, leaving behind a partially excavated hole devoid of any eggs.

Leaving the nest...
No eggs this time

“I guess we scared her away,” I said disappointedly as Ralph proceeded to smooth out the sand and remove the chairs. 

Softshell turtles are vulnerable to many predators but I don’t like to think I’m among them.  However, even those of us with the best of intentions can inadvertently disrupt nature’s plans.  

The next time I encounter a softshell turtle digging a hole to lay eggs, I hope to respond differently.  I’ll still observe but rein in my curiosity.  I’ll let the turtle do what it wants – even if that means choosing a well-traveled road as a nest site.  I’ll try harder not to interfere.  

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