Turtles are on the run, watch out!

Blanding's turtle
In this June 9, 1999, file photo, a Blanding's turtle is about to cross a road in Minnesota.
Jeff Dankert | Winona Daily News via AP

Updated: Oct. 5, 9:05 a.m. | Posted: Dec. 9, 11:58 a.m.

The fall season is associated with a lot of things — turning leaves, colder temperatures, a little bit of frost — but probably not baby turtles. Right now is high turtle crossing season! MaryLynn Pulscher from the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board talks with guest host Tim Nelson about what’s going on with the turtles and why the park board is paying attention.

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity. Click the audio player above to listen to their conversation.

What’s going on with the turtles?

So turtles really come ashore in early summer. And this year was a little bit later, because we had kind of funky weather, as we all know. They come ashore, they dig a nest to lay eggs and they walk away. And later in the fall most of the turtle hatchlings will emerge. And then a lot of them need to cross the road again and get back to the water.

So this year, it has happened a little bit later. We're hoping everybody is still keeping an eye out for these very, very small little snapping turtles and painted turtles as they cross the road.

So they spend the winter underwater?

Yep, so they are in the lake over the winter. Some turtle hatchlings will make the decision to just wait it out. They may have hatched out of their egg, but based on temperature, and if it's too dry—better if it’s moist and warm—then they're more interested in moving so they actually can also stay and overwinter in their nest.

So how long are they on the move? When should we be watching for them?

A lot of them were on the move in September. And of course, we've had this kind of major temperature drop, so we're probably at the very last ones who nested late. We definitely want people to continue to keep an eye out for another week or two at least. And there are nests that we know that are on the shoreline like softshell turtles that have been in beach enclosure areas, those hatchlings have not emerged yet. So we're keeping an eye on those turtles as well.

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What should you do if you see a turtle crossing? Should you help them?

Yes, so you can stop and wait. But never put yourself in any danger, keep an eye out. And whatever direction the turtle is going, we want you to help the turtle continue to go the same way. This time of year they're going to be heading toward water. Be careful how you pick them up, don't pick them up by the tail or anything like that. They look indestructible, but they're not. And if you happen to see an injured turtle like a turtle that's been hit by a car, you can take it to the Wildlife Rehab Center, they can do amazing things with like repairing cracked shells.

But really keeping an eye out for adults in spring and fall is super important because female turtles are the ones that are mostly on the move. And they really don't start to lay eggs until they are 10 to14-years-old. And if you kill an adult female, you really set back the population. It's really important to keep an eye out for them and be good to turtles.

I think some people may be tempted to pick them up and take them home.

Do not take it home. We want to — they're cute, they're charming and everybody loves turtles, but we really want you to leave wild turtles where they are. We need that population to stay put. And if you are someone who has a red slider turtle, something that you bought at a pet store, those are not a native Minnesota turtle.

Don’t ever release those out of your aquarium into any of our bodies of water. If you want to rehome it, you can you know contact a pet store or the Herp Society and they can help you find a new home for it. But please do not release it into the wild.

I understand a research program has been going on for a couple of years here collecting these turtle sightings. Tell me a little bit more how it works.

We just completed year two of this research and we're really reliant on the people who use the Minneapolis park system. We've got an app called report a turtle and what we're really looking for is people to document their sightings. Where have you seen a turtle in the park system? Tell us what they're doing. We would like to know if the turtle is dead or alive. Are they basking in the sun? Are they crossing a road? Are they nesting? Are they swimming? What are they doing so we can start to identify where we have turtles in the park system, places that should do a better job of providing protection, improving their habitat.

We're also interested in where people are finding dead turtles, because those would be hot zones where then we can take the time to alter maybe how we do parkways, providing curb cuts, you know, so it's a little easier for a hatchling to get up and over that steep curb. And really be able to draw attention to those locations for drivers, walkers, bikers and have it be something seasonal that we can pop the signs up and down so people are really aware and can be careful during that time.

The exciting thing about this is really the resident participation. The first year that we did this, we had about 100 people who took the time to come complete the app, do the reporting. And this year, we had more than 500 people who actually turned in reports about turtles. That's just really exciting for mapping to see what's going on in the lakes, the ponds. If anybody lives near the Mississippi River, we're really interested in getting more people who are out walking and see turtles.

Where do they go to make the report?

If you go to the Minneapolis Park Board website, which is minneapolisparks.org, and you just type in a keyword of turtles, it'll take you to a page to report a turtle. And you will get into this really, just very easy to use app, you can actually put a dot on a map and show us exactly where the turtle was. You can try and help identify which kind of turtle it is, as well.

We mostly have snapping turtles, painted and softshell turtles in the Minneapolis park system. But there may be a few others that we just love to know where those populations are. We record the information and then we start sorting it out and doing mapping. We're hoping to have our reports on our website with more information about turtles in the next few weeks

Do you have to know what kind of turtle you're looking at it?

Well, you don't have to know what they are. You could definitely google it yourself and see if you can figure it out but even the description is helpful. People are always very excited to see them. Snapping turtles are the ones that bite and look a little more fierce. They're an adult, they've been in the water. Painted turtles are more of those classic ones that you see that are out basking a lot in the park system.

You don't have to know what kind of turtle it is but just knowing where they are makes a huge difference. And this past year, we did a turtle enclosure at Lake Bde Maka Ska which is providing fencing on a certain part of the beach so that softshell turtles could have a protected area to lay eggs. That's been really exciting to see there.

Over at Lake Harriet we have another one, and those turtles are finding that spot and the amazing thing is they will remember that they had success here and they will come back again and again.

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Audio transcript

TIM: Fall is associated with a lot of things-- turning leaves, colder temperatures, a little bit of frost like we saw up north. But what you might not think about-- baby turtles. And right now is high turtle crossing season. Why? We're going to ask MaryLynn Pulscher. She's the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board's Manager for Environmental Education and Youth Employment.

Welcome to Minnesota Now, MaryLynn.

MARYLYNN PULSCHER: Thanks, Tim. Good to be here.

TIM: So a lot of people think about baby animals in the spring. But I guess baby turtles are out and about in the fall. What's going on?

MARYLYNN PULSCHER: So turtles really come ashore in early summer. And this year, it was a little bit later because we had kind of funky weather, as we all know. They come ashore. They dig a nest, lay eggs, and they walk away. And later in the fall, most of the turtle hatchlings will emerge.

And then a lot of them need to cross the road again-- that happens all over-- and get back to the water. And so this year, the turtle hatch happened a little bit later, so we're hoping everybody is still keeping an eye out for these very, very small little snapping turtles and painted turtles as they cross the road, maybe from over a parkway, getting back to a wetland or a lake or something like that.

TIM: So you said they're going back to the water. Do they spend the-- spend the winter underwater?

MARYLYNN PULSCHER: Yep. So then they are in the lake over the winter. But we definitely have some turtle hatchlings will make the decision to just wait it out. They may have hatched out of their egg, but based on temperature, like if it's too dry-- it's better if it's moist and warm-- then they're more interested in moving.

So they actually can also stay and overwinter in their nest. So that's something that I actually learned new this year with this research project that we're doing with a local ecologist, Jenny Winkelman. And that was something I was not aware of until this year.

TIM: So how long are they on the move? When are they-- when should we be watching out for them?

MARYLYNN PULSCHER: So a lot of them are on the move in September. And, of course, we've had this major temperature drop, so we're probably at the very last ones who nested late. We definitely want people to continue to keep an eye out for another week or two, at least. And there are nests that we know that are on the shoreline, like softshell turtles that have been in beach exposure areas, that those hatchlings have not emerged yet. So we're keeping an eye on those turtles as well.

TIM: I've seen the turtle crossing signs in Minneapolis just out and about. If you see one there, what should you do? Do you get out and help them cross? Do you stop and wait?

MARYLYNN PULSCHER: Yes. So you can stop and wait. But if there's-- of course, never put yourself in any danger. Keep an eye out. And whatever direction the turtle is going, we want you to help the turtle continue to go the same way. This time of year, they're going to be heading towards water.

Be careful how you pick them up. It is mostly going to be smaller ones at this point. But if there were adults that are moving to some place that they're going to spend the winter, maybe if they're moving from a wetland to a lake, you have to be careful how you pick them up and move them from the shell. Don't pick them up by the tail or anything like that. They look indestructible, but they're not.

And if you happen to see an injured turtle, like a turtle that's been hit by a car, you can take it to the Wildlife Rehab Center. They can do amazing things with repairing cracked shelves and that kind of thing. But really keeping an eye out for adults, spring and fall, is super important because female turtles are the ones that are mostly on the move, and they really don't start to lay eggs till they're 10, 14 years old. And if you kill an adult female, you've really set back the population. So it's really important to keep an eye out for them and be good to turtles.

TIM: I think some people may also be tempted to pick one up and take it home.

MARYLYNN PULSCHER: Do not take it home. Do not take it home. We want you-- they're cute. They're charming. Everybody loves turtles. But we really want you to leave wild turtles where they are. We need that population to stay put.

And if you are someone who has a red slider turtle, something that you bought at a pet store, those are not a native Minnesota turtle. And so don't ever release those out of your aquarium into any of our water bodies as well. If you want to rehome it, you're tired of your red slider turtle, you can contact a pet store or the Herp Society, and they can help you find a new home for it. But please do not release it into the wild.

TIM: Now, you talked a little bit about a program you've got going on, I understand a research program. And it's been going for a couple of years here, collecting these turtle sightings. Tell me a little bit more how it works.

MARYLYNN PULSCHER: Sure thing. So we just completed year two of this research, and we're really reliant on the people who use the Minneapolis park system or just are in Minneapolis in general. We've got an app called Report a Turtle. And what we're really looking for is people to document their sightings. Where have you seen a turtle in the park system? Tell us what they're doing.

If you can identify the species, great. But we would like to know if the turtle is dead or alive. We'd like to know if they're alive, are they basking in the sun? Are they crossing a road? Are they nesting? Are they swimming? What are they doing so we can start to identify where we have turtles in the park system, places that we should do a better job of providing protection, improving their habitat.

And we're also interested in where people are finding dead turtles because those would be hot zones where then we can take the time to alter maybe how we do parkways, providing curb cuts so it's a little easier for a hatchling to get up and over that steep curb, and really be able to draw attention to those locations for drivers, walkers, bikers, and have it be something seasonal that we can pop the signs up and down so people are really aware and can be careful during that time.

And the exciting thing about this is really for citizen, resident participation is the first year that we did this, we had about 100 people who took the time to come complete the app, do the reporting. And this year, we had more than 500 people who actually turned in reports about turtles. And that's just really exciting for mapping to see what's going on in the lakes, the ponds. If anybody lives near the Mississippi River, we're really interested in getting more people who are out walking and see turtles in that location.

TIM: Little citizen science there.

MARYLYNN PULSCHER: It's citizen science. We need you. We definitely need you.

TIM: And how does this actually work? I mean, where do they go to actually make this report?

MARYLYNN PULSCHER: So if you go to the Minneapolis Park Board website, which is minneapolisparks.org, and you just type in a keyword of turtles, it'll take you to a page that has a little Bitly-- and, actually, you could do it bit.ly/ReportATurtle, and you will get into this really just very easy-to-use app. You can actually put a dot on a map and show us exactly where the turtle was.

You can try and help identify which kind of turtle it is as well. We mostly have snapping turtles, painted, and softshell turtles in the Minneapolis park system, but there may be map turtles and a few others that we'd just love to know where those populations are. And we record the information, and then we start sorting it out and doing mapping. And we're hoping to have our reports up on our web site with more information about turtles in the next few weeks.

TIM: And do you have to know what kind of turtle you're looking at? You talked a little bit about the not red painted turtles, obviously, but what's out there?

MARYLYNN PULSCHER: Well, you don't have to know what they are. You could definitely Google it yourself and see if you can figure it out. But even a description of, hey, it looked-- oh, you know, smooth shell turtles or softshell turtles, they look very prehistoric, kind of leathery shelled, look very atypical. People are always very excited to see them.

Snapping turtles are the ones that bite and look a little more fierce than they-- if they're an adult, they've been in the water, and they look really craggy, and they've got, oh, things growing on their shells. They look green and a little more embedded. And painted turtles are more of those classic ones that you see that are out basking a lot in the park system. So you don't have to know what kind of turtle it is. It's OK to say you don't know. That's just fine. But just--

TIM: Fantastic.

MARYLYNN PULSCHER: --knowing where they are makes a huge difference. And this past year, we did a turtle enclosure over at Bde Maka Ska, which is providing fencing on a certain part of the beach so that the softshell turtles could have a protected area to lay eggs. And that's been really exciting to see there. And over at Lake Harriet, we have another one. And those turtles are finding that spot. And the amazing thing is they will remember that they had success here, and they will come back again and again. So--

TIM: Great.

MARYLYNN PULSCHER: --the research in other state shows that's possible. It's really cool.

TIM: Great. Well, thanks for the turtle tutorial, MaryLynn. MaryLynn Pulscher is the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board's Manager for Environmental Education and Youth Employment.

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