Untold numbers of turtles - some on protected species lists - are killed on Massachusetts roadways each year while looking for a place to lay their eggs, searching for food or simply getting from one place to another. A collaborative project between the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife's Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program and MassHighway might put an end to some of the road kill.
On Wednesday, the patient was brought to the New England Wildlife Center bloody, dazed and cracked.
The eastern painted turtle, a common Massachusetts species found in or near ponds and lakes, met with a truck or car on Route 44 in Plymouth earlier that afternoon and a passer-by scooped it up to see what could be done.
Untold numbers of turtles - some on protected species lists - are killed on Massachusetts roadways each year while looking for a place to lay their eggs, searching for food or simply getting from one place to another.
A collaborative project between the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife's Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program and MassHighway might put an end to some of the road kill.
This spring, the state began collecting information from area wildlife scientists, advocates and motorists about areas where they see high rates of turtles killed by vehicles. When possible, the species of turtle killed is logged to see if it is endangered or protected.
When the study is complete, MassHighway and the NHESP hope to have a statewide priority list of turtle road-kill hot spots. Some of those locations could see immediate improvements, including fencing or other barriers to protect the turtles, and others would be flagged for the future when construction projects in the area might allow for more expansive measures, including wildlife tunnels.
"We know already that there are a number of very low cost design implementations that make roads safer for wildlife," said Mike Jones, endangered species review biologist at the NHESP. "We are interested in having available as a resource where these problem crossing sites occur."
"These are pretty small fixes that can really provide a great benefit to the traveling public and wildlife," said Kevin Walsh, director of environmental services for MassHighway.
Walsh said turtles in the road can be hazards to drivers who try to avoid them and get into wrecks or endanger people who run into the road to help the reptiles, "beside the fact that it's killing the turtles. Even a small number of deaths can decimate a local population."
The surge of federal stimulus money to pay for transportation projects in part made the study possible.
Walsh said Jones' position at the NHESP is paid by MassHighway's budget through an interagency agreement. The stimulus money caused a significant increase in the number of transportation projects, which all need environmental review.
Jones, who works out of the MassWildlife field office in Westborough, operates independently of MassHighway but his position "helps us have them focus on our projects and identify areas where we can improve the environment while we are out there," Walsh said.
Ron McAdow, executive director of Sudbury Valley Trustees, praised the collaboration between the two state agencies.
"I applaud this very much," McAdow said. "With turtles, it's extremely important (to protect them) because they have a very slow reproductive strategy. They lay a small number of eggs and many of those eggs can be eaten by predators. The accidental death of an adult turtle really makes a big difference in the population."
According to Jones, protected species such as wood, box and Blanding's turtles are of particular concern as well as common species such as painted and snapping turtles, which are probably declining in population.
There are two ways turtles get into trouble on roads, Jones said.
Some turtles are actually looking for nesting areas on the shoulder or median. Others are crossing the road to get to nesting areas or back to water.
In areas where turtles wander on the shoulder looking for nesting sites, a simple low barrier would keep them safer. In areas where turtles are crossing roads from waterways, a culvert or tunnel under the road might be what's needed, Jones said.
Locally, roads around the Concord, Sudbury, Assabet and Nashua rivers are being targeted, though site-specific data is not complete.
This is not the first time the state has helped turtles near roads.
Two years ago, MassHighway improved fencing along Route 2 in Lancaster because Blanding's turtles - a threatened species in Massachusetts - were crawling under a fence and not making it across the busy highway. There are also wildlife tunnels under Route 2 in Concord.
According to Dr. Greg Mertz, CEO of the New England Wildlife Center, turtles most often get hit by cars in May (when females are searching for nesting sites) and late September (when hatchlings head to water), but road kills can happen at any time.
Last week, three painted turtles hit by cars had to be euthanized at the center, Mertz said. Fifty-five turtles were brought to the Wildlife Center last year.
Those that can be saved are eventually returned close to where they were found, said herpetologist Joe Martinez, director of education at the Wildlife Center.
"But if the (pond or lake) is surrounded by roads and heavy traffic, we might look for a better location," he said.
Wednesday's patient came in with a visible crack down the middle of its shell. It appeared slightly impaired neurologically and had blood stains on its underside, Mertz said, but it might be saved.
The woman who found it, Morgan Guiliano of Manomet, said she's a big fan of turtles and this was not her first road rescue.
According to staff veterinarian Dr. Maureen Murray at the wildlife clinic at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in Grafton, about 80 turtles are brought in each year. A vast majority of those were injured on the road and only half survive.
Common injuries, such as shell fractures, are fixed with orthopedic wire and the turtles are released back into the wild soon after, even though the bone of the shells may take a year or more to fully heal, Murray said.
With each adult turtle killed, the effect on local populations can be devastating, Murray said, because it takes 15-20 years to reach adulthood.
"Road mortalities are really a huge threat to turtle populations," she said. "Collecting data on road crossings is really important for these turtle species. I think it's a great idea."
To report areas of where turtles are killed by vehicles, e-mail Jones at Michael.T.Jones@state.ma.us or Tim Dexter at MassHighway at Timothy.Dexter@state.ma.us. Provide directions to the site or a GPS location, as well as the number and species of turtles seen.
Rob Haneisen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 508-626-3882.