We don’t think very much about the turtles and terrapins that we see on the roads this time of year. In fact, we don’t think about them very much at all unless they have been mashed by a vehicle or have grown to a significant size to grab our attention. There is more to their story than meets the eye.
Kansas has several different types of turtles. The most common for us to see is the beautiful slider turtles, the big snapping turtles, and the soft shell turtles. I’ve always had an interest (not affection — although lots of small turtles end up in aquariums or pens as “pets”) in these critters. They must have excellent eyesight. If you are walking or driving close enough for you to see them — they can see you. We have all been amazed at how little disturbance is required to bolt every turtle on the logs or shore into the water. Just changing the speed of a vehicle will launch these guys—from farther than you would expect them to be startled.
I have Googled up some interesting stuff, so I will bore you with some of it. It is possible that the turtles feel sound waves. They have nerve endings in their shells. Their hearing apparently isn’t so good — their ear canals are covered with skin flaps. Turtles have webbed feet and their shell is composed of about 60 bones covered by keratin plates. They do have a terrific sense of smell — I have caught turtles on trotlines and fish hooks in muddy water. They like stink bait.
I have had turtle soup in a few places including a gumbo in Texas, and a 5-star restaurant in Mexico. It was good. I have heard reports of turtles being harvested from the Bottoms with pitch forks for table fare. That would seem like a lot of work compared to the mass harvesting of waterfowl for commercial sales with those big guns back in the day. I just can’t fathom wading around trying to locate and collect these turtles.
Their survival instincts are almost unbelievable. I remember talking to Karl Grover about turtles at the Bottoms when drought dried the ground almost completely and comparing that situation to the winter ice freezing everything up. He said they found several of the large turtles buried 3-4 feet in the mud around the gates. They were stacked up on top of each other — supposedly to allow everyone to get to the right spot for maximum protection and temperature. Breathing slows down and eventually stops. They get oxygen through special skin cells in their tails. And they do that for months. I have a little bit of claustrophobia, and that almost breaks me out in a sweat. What amazing things happen in the mud at the Bottoms.
The reason these critters are so visible on the roads now is because of the breeding season. They are all looking for the perfect spot to lay their eggs. Be very careful and gentle when you stop and move them off the road. A warning — if you pick them up and hold or tilt them too much — they will empty their bladder and it always gets on your shoes. They hold more than you would expect. Hold them out well in front of you. Surprisingly, however, it has essentially no odor in my experience. More than once I have forgotten my own advice ...
The roads to the Bottoms are still pretty awful, but this tomato-growing sunshine is drying them out fast. Be careful going through the low-water crossings. I don’t go through them because if I got flooded or stuck I am certain that someone would put it on Facebook and I get enough grief without that. The cattle egrets are really pretty, and there are still Avocets and White-faced Ibis flitting about. The Scissor-tailed flycatchers are really busy and beautiful. Use some bug dope if you are going to be out a lot — the mosquitoes are very healthy!
I’m happy to report that the Bottoms survived another flood and all is well. Go see these birds and critters!
Doctor Dan Witt is a retired physician and nature enthusiast.