by Greg Mayer
Update: Yesterday afternoon on the way home, at about 5:30 PM, just hours after posting this, I came across a large snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) crossing in the middle of the road. It was a windy 2-lane road with a mix of homes, woodland, and fields (Wood Road, between A and KR in Somers, WI). The car ahead of me maneuvered around the turtle, and pulled into a long driveway. I pulled off just behind the turtle (though my car was still half on the road– there’s really no shoulder there), put on my flashers, got out and picked it up. It was big, 11.5 inches carapace length (measured by marking off on a stiff map I had in the car– I didn’t have a meter stick with me), a smooth shell with lots of algae growing on it, and very snappy– much more so than a captive turtle that’s used to people: a magnificent specimen. I tried one-handing it by the back of the shell, but couldn’t do it, so I grabbed one thigh in each hand and held it with its plastron toward my leg (so it couldn’t reach out and bite me, which it wanted to do). The driveway that the car went in led up hill into the woods, and I didn’t see anyone. There were no obvious bodies of water to bring it to, so I rang the bell at the house where I parked, but it looked dark. Looking back down the road, I saw a guardrail (which are often placed by ditches/water), walked down to it, and found a small creek going under the road coming out of a fairly dense woods, so I let it go on the edge. (A big frog jumped out of the way as I let it go!) As I walked back to my car, the neighbor whose bell I had rung came to the side of the road. As I explained, he said there were five ponds back in the woods where I’d let it go, and that he saw big snappers wandering around occasionally, although not one that big recently. He was a good observer, since he knew details about snappers that most people don’t. We both thought it would be just fine back there, which was in fact probably where it had come from. Unfortunately, I did not have camera to take a picture. This morning on the way to campus, I checked the road carefully– no carcass or blood stains. It either stayed in the creek/woods/ponds, or if it persisted in trying to cross, it made it across safely.
I am occasionally contacted by local or state authorities to assist in identifying, capturing, and/or taking care of reptiles that have, for various reasons, come to their attention. Sometimes this involves animals that are suspected of being inadequately cared for; such cases have come to be called “rescues”, a term that I am not entirely happy with, but which I use since everyone else does. There are cases though where the animal needs rescue, even though no direct human action has caused its predicament. Here are two such cases.
Early in May, I went out one evening with a friend and his son to look for frogs and toads, to help his son work on his Reptile and Amphibian Study merit badge. We were heading to Greenquist Pond, a small, artificial farm pond, now surrounded on two sides by woodland, on my campus. I decided to stop at an outside stairwell to the basement of a building near the pond, knowing that small animals can go down the stairs, but not up. In the leaf litter at the bottom of the stairs, my friend found a hatchling midland painted turtle (Chrysemys picta marginata).
When first found, the turtle was entirely immobile– I feared it was dead. A few minutes of being held in the hand, though, warmed it up, and it became active. We brought it back to the lab to be measured (26 mm carapace length) and photographed. Left in the stairwell, it would have undoubtedly died, as the steps were much too high for it to climb up, and in the stairwell it would have starved, died of cold, or been eaten (by a visiting bird or raccoon, or perhaps by a shrew, which also get trapped in stairwells and starve, but will eat anything down there with them before they do). We went on to see and/or hear at one or more of Greenquist Pond, Desch Pond, and the Willow Swamp bull frogs (Rana catesbeiana), green frogs (Rana clamitans), American toads (Bufo americanus) and chorus frogs (Pseudacris triseriata).
The hint of red you can see on the marginal scutes in the photo above is well developed on the plastron.
The turtle was a hatchling, but was from 2014’s egglaying. It had hibernated over the winter (perhaps in the nest), had emerged in spring 2015, but made a wrong turn on the way to the pond, and found itself in the stairwell. Once over the first step, it was ratcheted down to the bottom– it can fall down a step, but cannot go up a step. I was very glad to see it, since I had not found any painted turtle nests near the pond for some years, and feared that changes in land use around the pond might have turned the resident painted turtles into a non-reproducing population. The hatchling proves they are reproducing, and the location of the stairwell relative to the pond indicates they are nesting at least close to where they used to, although I’ve not found the nests.
After a few days in the lab, it was time to release the little fellow in the pond. Here he is on a patch of moss near the edge of the pond.
And here he is entering the water.
The previous September, I had found five American toads (Bufo americanus) in that same stairwell, and seven more in a deep (ca. 20 feet) window well outside my building (which is also quite close to Greenquist Pond and adjacent patch of woods). I typically go down the ladder into the window well when out with my vertebrate zoology class, because we often find trapped vertebrates in there (frogs, toads, small rodents). We brought the toads back to the lab for identification and measurement. Some of them were quite emaciated, and I decided to hold on to these for a bit to try to fatten them up before releasing them. Another was one of the largest American toads I’ve ever found around here, and I kept her to get some photos. But after releasing the others, the weather got cold before they fattened up or I got a chance to take photos, so I wound up keeping the big female and one of the emaciated toads over the winter (the other emaciated toad was eaten by the big female!). I released them in Greenquist Woods the same day this spring that I released the turtle.
Here they are (above), just after release, the formerly emaciated male on the left, the big female on the right. At the time of capture, the female was 75 mm snout-vent length. When released, she’d grown to 84 mm, and weighed 84 g. I’m not sure exactly how big the emaciated male was when captured, because I didn’t segregate the measurements of the emaciated ones I kept, but the set of smaller ones caught had sizes ranging from 20-32 mm. By the time of release he’d grown to 66 mm and weighed 31 g, and gotten kind of chubby even. He had also sexually matured, having keratinous nuptial thumb pads, grabbing onto the female’s back and holding tight (as males do during amplexus), and giving the “release” call when squeezed at the waist (as males and unreceptive females will do). In the wild, of course, he would not have grown over the winter, and thus may have sexually matured a year earlier relative to his cohort.
Here are portraits of them, taken just before or just after release.
I’d mentioned that these animals’ predicaments were not due to direct human action, but their need for rescue did arise from human action– essentially we’ve dotted the landscape with inescapable pits– just not from actions directed at the animals.
(And of course, toads are amphibians, but ‘reptile rescue’ is more terse and euphonious.)