Baby box turtle on white

Box turtles of the genus Terrapene are extraordinarily common in Missouri, especially in the eastern and southern forested regions of the state where the three-toed box turtle (T. carolina triunguis)—Missouri’s state reptile—is the most commonly encountered form. Despite this abundance and the author’s more than a half-century spent scrabbling through the sticks of Missouri, I have never encountered a youngster as tiny as the one shown in this post (shell length about 2 inches). In fact, I didn’t even find it—my daughter rescued it from our dog, who had found it crossing the gravel driveway at our family’s cabin west of St. Louis. Such overwhelming cuteness demanded a photo session, and rather than deal with the active little hatchling’s persistent efforts to duck into the leaf litter I decided to photograph it on a clean, white background and arrange some of the photos in a “Naskreckian” collage. My daughter wanted to keep the little guy, but eventually she agreed that it would be better off released back into the forest. While it may lead a more perilous life in the forest, the opportunity to dine on fresh earthworms and strawberries should make up for it, and from these photos my daughter can always remember it for the little pup it once was.


Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2014

BitB Top 10 of 2010

Welcome to the 3rd Annual BitB Top 10, where I pick my 10 (more or less) favorite photographs of the year.  My goal for 2010 was to continue the progress that I began the previous year in my quest to become a bona fide insect macrophotographer.  I’m not in the big leagues yet, but I have gotten more comfortable with using my equipment for in situ field photographs and am gaining a better understanding of lighting and the use of flash.  I also began experimenting with different lighting techniques (e.g. white box) and diffusers and am putting more effort into post-processing techniques to enhance the final appearance of my photographs.  I invite you to judge for yourself how successful I’ve been toward those goals by comparing the following selections with those from 2009 and 2008 – constructive feedback is always welcome:

Best Tiger Beetle

Cicindela denverensis - green claybank tiger beetle

From ID Challenge #1 (posted December 23).  With numerous species photographed during the year and several of these dramatic “face on” shots, this was a hard choice.  I chose this one because of the metallic colors, good focus throughout the face, and evenly blurred “halo” of hair in a relatively uncluttered background.

Best Jewel Beetle

Buprestis rufipes - red-legged buprestis

From Special Delivery (posted July 13).  I didn’t have that many jewel beetles photos to choose from, but this one would have risen to the top no matter how many others I had.  The use of a white box shows off the brilliant (and difficult-to-photograph) metallic colors well, and I like the animated look of the slightly cocked head.

Best Longhorned Beetle

Desmocerus palliatus - elderberry borer

From Desmocerus palliatus – elderberry borer (posted November 18).  I like the mix of colors in this photograph, and even though it’s a straight dorsal view from the top, the partial dark background adds depth to the photo to prevent it from looking “flat.”

Best “Other” Beetle

Enoclerus ichneumoneus - orange-banded checkered beetle

From Orange-banded checkered beetle (posted April 22).  The even gray background compliments the colors of the beetle and highlights its fuzziness.  It was achieved entirely by accident – the trunk of the large, downed hickory tree on which I found this beetle happened to be a couple of feet behind the twig on which it was resting.

Best Non-Beetle Insect

Euhagenia nebraskae - a clearwing moth

From Euhagena nebraskae… again (posted October 21).  I photographed this species once before, but those photos failed to capture the boldness of color and detail of the scales that can be seen in this photo.

Best “Posed” Insect

Lucanus elaphus - giant stag beetle

From North America’s largest stag beetle (posted December 30).  I’ve just started experimenting with photographing posed, preserved specimens, and in fact this male giant stag beetle represents only my second attempt.  It’s hard to imagine, however, a more perfect subject than this impressively stunning species.

Best Non-Insect Arthropod

Scolopendra heros - giant desert centipede

From North America’s largest centipede (posted September 7).  Centipedes are notoriously difficult to photograph due to their elongate, narrow form and highly active manner.  The use of a glass bowl and white box allowed me to capture this nicely composed image of North America’s most spectacular centipede species.

Best Wildflower

Hamamelis vernalis - Ozark witch hazel

From Friday Flower – Ozark Witch Hazel (posted March 26).  The bizarre form and striking contrast of colors with the dark background make this my favorite wildflower photograph for the year.

Best Non-Arthropod

Terrapene carolina triunguis - three-toed box turtle

From Eye of the Turtle (posted December 10).  I had a hard time deciding on this category, but the striking red eye in an otherwise elegantly simple photograph won me over.  It was also one of two BitB posts featured this past year on Freshly Pressed.

Best “Super Macro”

Phidippus apacheanus - a jumping spider

From Jeepers Creepers, where’d ya get those multilayered retinae? (posted October 5).  I’m not anywhere close to Thomas Shahan (yet!), but this super close-up of the diminutive and delightfully colored Phidippus apacheanus is my best jumping spider attempt to date.  A new diffuser system and increasing comfort with using the MP-E lens in the field at higher magnification levels should allow even better photos this coming season.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2011

Eye of the Turtle

Adult male three-toed box turtle (Terrapene carolina triunguis).

Is there anything more lovable than the humble turtle?  As old as the dinosaurs, they stumbled onto a body plan that works and promptly dropped out of the evolutionary arms race.  Slow, plodding, and seemingly oblivious, they steadfastly cling to their quite, unhurried lives.  As the rest of the earth’s diversity of life races on, turtles go about their business much as they have done for more than 200 million years now.  They are survivors.

My friend Rich and I encountered this three-toed box turtle (Terrapene carolina triunguis) during our hike of the lower North Fork Section of the Ozark Trail in extreme southern Missouri.  Three-toed box turtles are one of four U.S. subspecies of the eastern box turtle, occupying the area west of the Mississippi River from Missouri and Kansas south to Texas and distinguished by their largely unpatterned shell and – yes, three toes on the hind legs rather than four.  I walked right by this guy the first time without noticing him, and only when I turned around to go back and look at something else did I see him sitting there – neck fully extended.  Box turtles exhibit considerable variability in color and patterns on the head and neck, and this particular individual is one of the more conspicuously colored that I’ve seen.

And the eye – as red an eye as I’ve ever seen!  Almost surely a male, as females may have some red in the eye but rarely to such a spectacular degree.  Also likely full-grown based on his rather large size, though probably not too advanced in age yet since the growth rings were still easily visible (in older turtles the growth rings gradually wear smooth).  I estimated it at about 12 years based on ring counts – still a far cry from the 30-50 years that are not uncommonly documented.  He kept a watchful eye on me as I studied him, and I wondered about what his future held.  As an adult, he has settled into a small home range from which he rarely ventures – likely visible to me in its entirety from where I stood.  For the next several decades, he will amble across this single hillside on an endless quest for earthworms, strawberries, and mushrooms.  Save for a possible run-in or two with a destined-to-be-frustrated coyote, fox, or racoon, it will be a largely uneventful life.  He is a survivor.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010

The Inexorable March of Spring!

Granted, the progress of spring seems to advance in halting baby steps with occasional falls onto its muddy bottom, rather than as a determined forward march, but spring is welcome, no matter how it arrives. When little green tips start poking up and there’s a bit of that “spring smell” in the air, I simply must get out and catch up on the status of Nature — the old-fashioned way (she doesn’t have a Facebook account). Over the last week, I’ve gone forth in search of signs that everything else living is about as tired of winter as I am, and wants to get this spring show on the road! There is already so much happening, I can’t recount it all here — A partial list of unphotographed notables: owls breeding; hawks nesting; woodcocks doing their silly, repetitive and almost invisible (because it’s nearly dark) courtship displays; wood ducks on forest ponds; year-round resident songbirds reestablishing territories; spring peepers, chorus frogs, wood frogs and southern leopard frogs singing, especially in the fishless ponds; winter crane flies and midges swarming in sun flecks in the woods; wild filberts, silver and red maples flowering, etc…

Formica pallidefulva sniffs the spring air

Of course, I look for the first ants out at this time of year, though with the exception of 10 March, when the temperature exceeded 70F, they haven’t been notably active. However, that afternoon I encountered, among others, a worker of Formica pallidefulva poking its head out cautiously to sniff the spring air. This is one of my favorite local ants — largish (5-6mm), abundant, active in daylight even when it’s hot, usually shiny bronzy red to red-brown, usually with a darker gaster (the apparent abdomen of ants) around here, but ranging from a beautiful reddish gold (in the deep South) to almost pure black-coffee brown (New England and southern Canada) across its wide geographic occurrence (Rocky Mountain foothills of Wyoming to New Mexico, all the way east to Québec and Florida). It has the added charm of being the host species to a wide range of social-parasitic and dulotic (“slave-making”) ants both in its own and in another closely related genus, with which it lives in temporary or permanent mixed colonies (as with the Polyergus illustrated in my last post). The image below of these ants bringing home a charred earthworm was taken almost one year ago, as one of Shaw Nature Reserve’s prairie areas was beginning to resprout after a prescribed burn a few weeks earlier. Ants will take their food raw or cooked!

Formica pallidefulva with charred earthworm

Prenolepis imparis alate in the clutches of a gerrid

Another ant I mentioned last time I was with you, Prenolepis imparis, has the distinction of being the only ant in our fauna that has mating flights while there is still a good chance of frost in the forecast for the next few weeks. In this picture of a mating pair at  BugGuide, note the size difference that inspires their name “imparis”, Latin for disparate. Any time after mid-February when it is sunny and not too windy, and the temperature rises above 65F, the winged males and females reared the preceeding fall, fly out to partake of a grand insectan orgy. Typically, they have big flights on the first couple of appropriately warm days, then some smaller ones (i.e., fewer individuals participating) over the next few weeks. The flying males look like gnats, bobbing up and down in drifting swarms, a few feet off the ground over a shrub, near a woodland edge or in a sunny opening. (One of my co-workers got into the midst of a group of such swarms once when we were conducting a prescribed burn in a wooded area, and I recall her commenting she “felt like Pigpen with all the little bugs flying around”!) The much larger, golden-brown females lift slowly off the ground, fly ploddingly (or is it seductively?) through the male swarms, are there mobbed by the tiny fellows, and then glide away and slightly downward, mating in flight with the winner of the males’ tussling. Rather clumsy fliers, the females do not always land in a good spot, as occurred to this hapless one that ended up as a feast for a water strider. Those that survive break off their wings, dig a burrow, seal themselves in, and raise a small brood of workers on food produced in their own bodies (like say, milk in mammals or “cropmilk” in doves and some other birds.)

But lest you to think I only have eyes for ants, I feel indeed fortunate to have encountered a tarantula this week, of the same species as Ted recently posted and I didn’t even have to go to Oklahoma for it. This bedraggled individual was at the mouth of its completely flooded burrow in what is most often a very dry habitat — a dolomite glade. Stunned and muddy at the time, my guess is this creature, belonging to a resilient and ancient lineage, will dry off, clean up, and saunter away as soon as she warms up.

Aphonopelma hentzi in flooded burrow

And speaking of emerging from flooded burrows, how about this handsome fellow, a male three-toed box turtle, his sex revealed by his bright orange and red markings, coming up for a breather? In truth, it was perhaps only just warm enough to make him need air, but not really enough so for him to be up and about, so he just sat there, nearly immobile, looking pretty, notwithstanding mud and leaves glued onto his shell.

Male box turtle emerges

Copyright © James C. Trager 2010

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Glades of Jefferson County

We stood a moment to contemplate the sublime and beautiful scene before us, which was such an assembly of rocks and water—of hill and valley—of verdant woods and naked peaks—of native fertility and barren magnificence… – Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, 1818-1819

In the Ozark Border south of St. Louis, a series of natural openings punctuate the dry, rocky forests of Jefferson County. Commonly called “glades” or “cedar glades,” these islands of prairie in a sea of forest are home to plants and animals more commonly associated with the Great Plains region further to the west. Extending in a narrow arc from central Jefferson County east and south into northern Ste. Genevieve County, these glades occur most commonly on south and southwest-facing slopes below forested ridges and are characterized by thin soils and exposed dolomite bedrock of Ordovician age. Glades are, in fact, a common natural feature throughout much of the Ozark Highlands, an extraordinary plateau where the great eastern deciduous forest begins to yield to the western grasslands. A much more extensive system of dolomite glades occurs in the White River Hills of southwest Missouri, where they often extend up steep slopes and over the tops of knobs to form what Schoolcraft called “naked peaks” and are now called “balds” (and spawning the “Baldknobbers” of Branson fame). Additional glade complexes occur throughout the Ozark Highlands on different rock substrates – igneous glades abound in the St. Francois Mountains, sandstone glades dot the Lamotte landscape in Ste. Genevieve County and the northern and western Ozarks, limestone glades can be found in the northern Ozarks near Danville and Lake of the Ozarks, and chert glades occur in extreme southwest Missouri. These different glade systems share a common feature – shallow soils where tree establishment is limited due to summer moisture stress. They differ vegetationally, however, due to differences in hydrology and soil chemistry as a result of their different substrates. Floristically, dolomite glades exhibit a high degree of diversity relative to other glade types.

The term “glade” is derived from the Old English “glad,” meaning a shining place – perhaps the early settlers found their open landscapes a welcome respite after emerging from the confining vastness of the eastern deciduous forest. Whatever the meaning, the glades of Jefferson County hold a special place in my heart, for I “grew up,” entomologically speaking, in those glades. As a young entomologist, fresh out of school, I spent many a day scrambling through the glades and surrounding woodlands. It was here where my interest in beetles, especially woodboring beetles, was born and later grew into a passion. For eight years I visited these glades often – attracted by the extraordinary diversity of insects living within the glades and congregating around its edges. My earliest buprestid and cerambycid papers contain numerous records from “Victoria Glades” and “Valley View Glades” – the two best-preserved examples of the glades that once occurred extensively throughout the area (more on this later). My visits to these glades ended in 1990 when I moved to California, and although I moved back to the St. Louis area in 1995, the focus of my beetle research has more often taken me to places outside of Missouri. It had, in fact, been some 10 years since my last visit to these glades until last week, when I was able to once again spend some time in them.

Ozark glades differ from the true cedar glades of the southeastern U.S. in that they are not a climax habitat – they depend upon periodic fires to prevent succession to forest. Some recent authors have suggested the term “xeric dolomite/limestone prairie” be used to distinguish the fire-dependent glades of the Ozarks from the edaphic climax cedar glades of the southeast (Baskin & Baskin 2000, Baskin et al. 2007). Fires have been largely suppressed throughout Missouri since European settlement, leading to encroachment upon the glades by eastern red-cedar (Juniperus virginiana). Pure stands of red-cedar have developed on many former glades, crowding out the herbaceous plants that depend upon full sun and leading to soil formation that supports further encroachment by additional woody plant species such as post oak (Quercus stellata), blackjack oak (Q. marilandica), flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), and fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica) from the surrounding woodlands. Fire has returned to many of the Ozark glades situated on lands owned or managed by state and federal agencies such as the Missouri Department of Conservation, Missouri Department of Natural Resources, and U.S. Forest Service, as well as private conservation-minded organizations such as The Nature Conservancy. These agencies have begun adopting cedar removal and fire management techniques to bring back the pre-settlement look and diversity of the Ozark Glades. This is particularly true at Victoria Glades and Valley View Glades, the two largest and most pristine examples of the Jefferson County dolomite glade complex. Fires have been used to kill small red-cedars in the glades, as well as rejuvenate their herbaceous plant communities. Larger red-cedar trees are not killed outright by fire and must be removed by chainsaws. This above distant view of the TNC parcel at Victoria Glades shows many such burned red-cedars. The glades themselves are not the only habitat to benefit from this aggressive management – when I was doing my fieldwork here in the 1980’s the surrounding woodlands were a closed post oak forest bordered by fragrant sumac and with little or no understory in the interior. The photo at right now shows an open savanna with a rich understory of not only sumac and other shrubs, but also many herbaceous plants as well such as black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta) and American feverfew (Parthenium integrifolium). Such open woodland more closely resembles what Schoolcraft saw across much of the Ozarks during his journey almost two centuries ago.

Victoria and Valley View Glades are dominated by little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) and prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis). A smaller but highly charismatic non-grass flora is also found on the glades – species such as Missouri evening primrose (Oenethera macrocarpa) (left), pale purple coneflower (Echinacea simulata) (pictured above and below), and prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) not only add beautiful color but also support both vertebrate and invertebrate wildlife. The Fremont’s leather flower (Clematis fremontii) is a true endemic, occurring only in this part of Missouri and entirely dependent upon these glades for its survival. Less well studied is the vast insect fauna associated with the glades. It is here where I first discovered the occurrence of Acmaeodera neglecta in Missouri. This small jewel beetle is similar to the broadly occurring A. tubulus but at the time was known only from Texas and surrounding states. In collecting what I thought were adults of A. tubulus on various flowers in the glades, I noticed that some of them were less shining, more strongly punctate, and exhibited elytral patterning that was often coalesced into longitudinal “C-shaped” markings rather than the scattered small spots typical of A. tubulus. These proved to be A. neglecta, which I have since found on many glade habitats throughout the Ozark Highlands. Both species can be seen in this photo feeding on a flower of hairy wild petunia (Ruellia humilis) – the lower individual is A. neglecta, while the upper individual and two inside the flower are A. tubulus. Another interesting insect-plant association I discovered at these glades was the strikingly beautiful Dicerca pugionata – another species of jewel beetle – and its host plant ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius). Only a single Missouri occurrence had been reported for D. pugionata, despite the common occurrence of its host plant along rocky streams and rivers throughout the Ozark Highlands. This plant also grows at Victoria and Valley View Glades along the intermittent streams that drain the glades and in the moist toeslopes along the lower edges of the glades where water that has percolated through the rocks and down the slopes is forced to the surface by an impermeable layer of bedrock. Unlike the tall, robust, lush plants that can be found in more optimal streamside habitats with good moisture availability, the ninebark plants of Victoria and Valley View Glades are small and scraggly, usually with some dieback that results from suboptimal growing conditions. I surmise these plants have reduced capabilities for fending off attacks by insects, including D. pugionata, and as a result a healthy population of the insect thrives at these glades. Some might be inclined to call this beetle a pest, threatening the health of one of the glade’s plants. In reality, the insect finds refuge in these glades – unable to effectively colonize the vast reserves of healthy plants that grow along streams throughout the rest of the Ozarks, it strikes a tenuous balance with plants that are themselves on the edge of survival.

Despite the success in moving Victoria and Valley View Glades closer to their pre-settlement character, the integrity of these areas continues to be challenged. Poachers take anything of real or perceived value, and ATV enthusiasts view the open spaces as nothing more than tarmac. Pale purple coneflower occurs abundantly on these Jefferson County glades (but sparingly in other habitats – primarily rocky roadsides), where they provide a stunning floral display during June and sustain innumerable insect pollinators. Plants in the genus Echinacea also have perceived medicinal value, as herbalists believe their roots contain an effective blood purifier and antibiotic. There are no conclusive human clinical trials to date that fully substantiate this purported immune stimulating effect (McKeown 1999). Nevertheless, demand for herbal use has skyrocketed in recent decades, prompting widespread illegal harvesting of several coneflower species throughout their collective range across the Great Plains and Ozark Highlands. I witnessed massive removals of this plant from both Victoria and Valley View Glades during the 1980’s, but the pictures I took this year suggest that such illegal harvests have been suppressed and that the populations at both sites are recovering nicely.

The same cannot be said for the practice of rock flipping. This was a problem I witnessed back in the 1980’s, and I saw fresh evidence of its continued occurrence at both sites. The thin soils and sloping terrain leave successive layers of dolomite bedrock exposed, the edges of which shatter from repeated freeze-thaw cycles to create rows of loose, flat rocks along the bedrock strata. Lizards, snakes, tarantulas, and scorpions find refuge under these loose rocks, only to be ripped from their homes by flippers and transferred to a dark, cold terrarium to endure a slow, lingering death. As if poaching the glade’s fauna and watching them slowly die isn’t bad enough, the flippers add insult to injury by not even bothering to replace the rock in its original position after stealing its inhabitant, amounting to habitat destruction three times greater than the area of the rock itself. Firstly, the habitat under the rock is destroyed by sudden exposure of the diverse and formerly sheltered microfauna to deadly sunlight. Next, the habitat onto which the rock is flipped is also destroyed, as the plants growing there begin a slow, smothering death. Lastly, the upper surface of the rock, sometimes colonized by mosses and lichens that might have required decades or longer to grow, usually ends up against the ground – its white, sterile underside becoming the new upper surface. Rock flipper scars take years to heal, and nearly all of the flat, loose rocks seen in the more accessible areas of the glades exhibit scars of varying ages next to them. If a scar is fresh (first photo), I generally return to the rock to its original position – the former inhabitants cannot be brought back, but at least the original habitats are saved and can recover quickly. However, if a scar is too old (2nd photo) it is best to leave the rock in its new position – replacing it only prolongs the time required for recovery.

Even more damaging is ATV use. Herbaceous plants and thin soils are no match for the aggressive tread of ATV tires, and it doesn’t take too many passes over an area before the delicate plants are killed and loose soils ripped apart. I witnessed this become a big problem particularly on Victoria Glades during the 1980’s – actually finding myself once in a face-to-face confrontation with an ATV’er. Fortunately, he turned tail and ran, and it appears (for now) that such abuses have stopped, as I saw no evidence of more recent tracks during this visit. But the scars of those tracks laid down more than two decades ago still remain painfully visible. I expect several more decades will pass before they are healed completely.

My return to Victoria and Valley View Glades was a homecoming of sorts, and I was genuinely pleased to see the progress that has been made in managing these areas while revisiting the sites where my love affair with beetles was first kindled. Sadly, however, the larger glade complex of Jefferson County continues to deteriorate. Restoration acreage aside, red-cedar encroachment continues unabated on many of the remaining glade parcels – large and small – that dot the south and southwest facing slopes in this area. It has been conservatively estimated that as much as 70% of the original high quality glades in Missouri are now covered in red-cedar. Many of these are privately held – their owners either do not recognize their ecological significance or are loathe to set fire to them. An example can be seen in the picture here – this small parcel is part of the Victoria Glades complex but lies on private land in red-cedar choked contrast to the Nature Conservancy parcel immediately to the south. Small numbers of herbaceous plants persist here, but without intervention by fire or chainsaw their numbers will continue to dwindle and the glade will die. Aside from the loss of these glades, the continuing reduction of glade habitat complicates management options for preserved glades as well. Many glade associated invertebrates are “fire-sensitive” – i.e., they overwinter in the duff and leaf litter above the soil and are thus vulnerable to spring or fall fires. While these fires are profoundly useful for invigorating the herbaceous flora, they can lead to local extirpation of fire-sensitive invertebrate species within the burn area. Recolonization normally occurs quickly from unburned glades in proximity to the burned areas but can be hampered if source habitat exists as small, highly-fragmented remnants separated by extensive tracts of hostile environment. Grazing also continues to threaten existing remnants in the Jefferson County complex. Grazing rates are higher now than ever before, with greater negative impact due to the use of fencing that prevents grazers from moving to “greener pastures”. Over-grazing eliminates native vegetation through constant depletion of nutrient reserves and disturbance of the delicate soil structure, leading to invasion and establishment of undesirable plant species. Eventually, the glade becomes unproductive for pasture and is abandoned – coupled with fire suppression this leads to rapid woody encroachment. It is truly depressing to drive through Jefferson County and recognize these cedar-choked glades for what they were, able to do nothing but watch in dismay as yet another aspect of Missouri’s natural heritage gradually disappears. The continued loss of these remnant glades makes careful use of fire management on Victoria and Valley View Glades all the more critical – ensuring that a patchwork of unburned, lightly burned, and more heavily burned areas exists at a given time will be critical for preventing invertebrate extirpations within these managed areas.

I close by sharing with you a few more of the many photographs I took during this visit – stiff tickseed (Coreopsis palmata), three-toed box turtle (Terrapene carolina triunguis), climbing milkweed (Matelea decipiens – see the excellent post about this plant on Ozark Highlands of Missouri), downy phlox (Phlox pilosa), green milkweed (Asclepias viridiflora), and a “deerly” departed native browser.

Saving turtles, one by one…

“You should be able to push him from behind,” said the other motorist, who had also seen the young snapping turtle sitting in the middle of the exressway right after I did and pulled up as I was taking some “pre-rescue” pictures. “Nyeah, I think I’ll go ahead and get something to push him with anyway,” I said, hoping that the tone of my voice did not betray my true thoughts, “What, are you crazy? I’m not putting my bare fingers or sandal-clad feet anywhere near that thing!” I’ve rescued plenty of snappers over the years, and I know first hand just how surprisingly quick they can be. Truth be told, snapping turtles can be safely moved by hand – apparently they cannot reach the back of or underneath their shell. However, it takes considerably more temerity than I possess to actually try this. I grabbed a bicycle pump from the back of the truck and hooked the base of it under its shell. Immediately, the young turtle snapped at the pump – startling the man as well as two other cyclists who had stopped to watch the goings on. I admit to feeling more than a little vindicated as they all stepped back a few steps. I was hoping the turtle would maintain his grip on the pump so I could just carry him over to the roadbank, but every time I tried to lift he let go. So I had to just keep hooking the pump under his shell and pulling him towards the side of the road – the turtle fought every bit of the way, hissing and snapping and clawing against the road. At last he was in the grass – it was then an easy matter to roll him over a few times down the bank and safely (for now) away from the road.

Road mortality is suspected to have contributed to widespread population declines in turtles across the United States. This seems especially true for freshwater aquatic species, which often make land migrations for breeding. Vehicles often do not stop for turtles in the road, and I have seen some (usually a pickup truck with very large tires) swerve deliberately in an attempt to hit them (or even more sadistically, “shoot” them across the roadway). Conincident with these declines has been a demographic change towards male-biased populations in many freshwater species. Adult female freshwater turtles make nesting migrations that males do not and are often attracted to road shoulders and embankments as nesting habitat, making them disproportionately more vulnerable to road mortality. The resulting male-biasing surely represents an additional risk factor to their populations, especially in areas where high traffic occurs in proximity to wetlands. In such places, mitigation measures such as barriers and wildlife underpasses are clearly warranted (Steen et al. 2006).

I’ve always been a little awed by snappers – so grizzled and ancient, almost dinosaurian, and while I doubt that my sporadic rescues have near as much impact as barriers or underpasses, I do know that they cannot possibly hurt. As for this turtle, whether it continued on its way or turned around and crawled back onto the road (due to my unwittingly placing it on the side from which it just came) will remain unknown. I was heartened to see that I wasn’t the only person who stopped, intent on saving this grotesquely beautiful creature. But as I scanned this miles-long stretch of very recently constructed roadway, which now enables St. Louis countians to rapidly zip along next to newly created wetlands in the Missouri River bottoms while avoiding the stop-and-go on I-270, I couldn’t help but wonder why barriers and underpasses, seemingly simple protective measures, weren’t also included on the final blueprints of the roadway before they were sent to the printers. If such had been done, then I would not have had this encounter. But I could’ve lived with that.