These young’uns emerged from a flower bed in front of MacDonald Hall today. There were about ten of them, and they started walking in different directions. They are baby snapping turtles, laid there by a mother snapping turtle weeks ago, probably in June. In Massachusetts all but three species of turtles are protected and cannot be collected in the wild. Snapping turtles are not protected, but like all turtles, have a long life span and do better if simply left alone. Because of their slow movement and long life spans, turtles have not fared well in the rapidly changing world of the last couple of centuries.
Generally, when turtles are wandering, they have an instinct telling them where to go. It they are in the road, move them out of danger in the direction they are going. It is OK to move hatchlings toward water, but realize that for many young animals wandering, breaking their way out of shells, and other difficult tasks can be important in their development. In any case, if they look like they are going down a storm drain, into traffic, or into some other dire strait, feel free to move them to the edge of a water body and leave them near some type of cover like leaves. Adult snapping turtles, in contrast, bite (seriously). So if you ever need to move one, let it chomp on a stick and move it without getting your hands close, or put it in a box.
But anyway, what should you do if you find them? In general, leave wild animals alone to do their thing. But it’s a scary world out there, so don’t step on them and PLEASE DON’T DRIVE ON THEM.
Interesting Biology Tidbit: Turtles are interesting because in many species, sex ratio is determined not by genes but by the temperature the baby experiences while developing in the egg. This is a very primitive trait, older than the determination of sex by sex chromosomes. As climate warms, turtles experience a shift in sex ratio, moving to more males. Conservation biologists are trying to figure out ways to help turtles survive in changing circumstances.