Reptile rescue

June 11, 2015 • 1:00 pm

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).

Chrysemys picta marginata, UW-Parkside, Kenosha, WI, 6 May 2015.
Chrysemys picta marginata, UW-Parkside, Kenosha, WI, 6 May 2015.

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.

Plastron of hatchling painted turtle.
Plastron of hatchling painted turtle.

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.

Chrysemys picta marginata, UW-Parkside, Kenosha, WI, 6 May 2015.
Hatchling painted turtle about to enter Greenquist Pond, UW-Parkside, Kenosha, WI.

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.

American toads, Greenquist Woods, UW-Parkside, Kenosha, WI.
American toads, Greenquist Woods, UW-Parkside, Kenosha, WI.

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.

Male Bufo americanus, UW-Parkside.
Male Bufo americanus, UW-Parkside.
Female Bufo americanus, UW-Parkside.
Female Bufo americanus, UW-Parkside.

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.)

31 thoughts on “Reptile rescue

    1. Turtles are very cool. I will sometimes run across an alligator snapping turtle (local parlance, I have no idea if that is the correct species name) while fishing. Fascinating animals, they would be right at home among the dinosaur cast members of Jurassic World.

  1. Lovely painted turtle! I’m forever rescuing them from the middle of roads as they cross to various ponds.

  2. I love to see the turtle return to the water. I expected it to move slightly faster but it was young and small obstacles are more difficult for it. There’s something very joyful about seeing one speed into the water where before it had been sluggish, lost, and perhaps a bit depressed—if they are capable of such emotion.

  3. Baby turtles are awesome; I’m glad you rescued that little guy and set it free.

    The Bufo americanus portraits are splendid.

  4. I found a toad (UK) far away from water. I took it to a local pond in a box. 100 yards away from my destination it got extremely excited. Somehow it must have sensed the water.

  5. I just recently sent info to Jerry on painted turtles and snappers laying eggs as they do all around here and then heading back to the lake. I’m afraid the natural enemy in this area are the Raccoon as they go around at night digging up all the eggs. Some do get through but many do not.

  6. Thanks for a very heart-warming and informative post, Dr. Mayer.

    (Here’s a good video of Dr. Mayer giving a lecture on “The Evidence for Evolution’, on Darmin Day 2014.)

    1. Just a different white balance, no? Or ambient light spectrum.

      The first two shots look like they were flash shots indoors.

      1. Yes– the “butcher block” surface was indoors, with a flash. The color effect is also noticeable in the portrait of the male toad. The outdoor shots also used flash, IIRC, but the color balance looks better.


  7. I grew up in Wisconsin near a nice forest, and we always got neat things in our window wells. Lots of toads, but also lots of tiger (?) salamanders. That was back in the early 70s. Nowadays salamanders are pretty much absent from that subdivision, though the forest is still there. I wonder what made them disappear?

      1. I grew up in an idyllic setting: an early “suburb” a few miles out of town named, Hickory Grove”, where the developer had left most of the trees standing. To the South, two of the “pioneer” homeowners had ponds built by their houses; the houses North of us were backed by woods, with several other old ponds in them. Thus there was a tremendous amount of wildlife around, from insects to amphibians. The 1950s houses were all block basements with the steel, U-shaped “window wells”. Developing a passion for keeping snakes, turtles, and other critters, I started checking the houses next to the ponds and found numerous tiger salamanders trapped in them (sadly enough often finding their dessicated remains, as well). I accumulated a dozen of them and kept them overwinter in our basement in an old TV cabinet, with a plastic tub for water cut into the bottom, with a small light bulbs for heat. I fed them dampened worm cake I bought in Kresges’ pet department and when I opened the hinged back of the cabinet, they would all start snapping their jaws. I had pet box turtles that would eat out of my hand, and once had two ribbon snakes mate and produce live young, which my previously snake-fearing mother would feed with pieces of worm on a toothpick: the baby snakes would stand up on their tails and open the jaws when she leaned over their tub!

    1. First comment below- I forgot to mention cats, dogs, herbicides, and people who don’t “brake for snakes”: once humans move into a wilderness setting, their actions will inevitable result in a reduction of the wildlife. Just the slow “attrition” of a few snakes a year killed by drivers will eventually rid the area of them.

    2. There’s still a locality near UW-Parkside that has tiger salamanders, and my friend and his son, as part of their continuing merit badge study, found another locality with them not too far away in an adjoining county. Both sites are protected/undeveloped areas (though, as with all of SE Wisconsin, not very far from development). There are also blue spotted salamanders in the area.


  8. What great stories and pictures! 🙂 Is there anything cuter than a baby turtle/tortoise? What a beautiful plastron that baby has. Thank goodness you patrol those window wells and stairways.

    Were American Toads introduced in the UK or have they always been there?

      1. That was a total brainf*rt on my part! Though I knew you were Greg, I just suddenly channeled Matthew while firing that off. Which naturally dawned on me just while I was pressing Post Comment.


        BTW, I found this part interesting: “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).” At first, holding the plastron side near sounds counterintuitive…till I remember watching our tame one curving its neck up to snap. (Not at us.)

  9. I’m not clear on what “direct human action” has to do with whether an animal is being rescued or not.

    1. The term “rescue”, in some semi-technical sense, has come to refer to agencies seizing captive animals that are suspected of being mistreated by their owners (see, e.g., the TV show “Animal Rescue”, a sort of “Cops” for animal control agencies; on the other hand, please don’t see it, but just contemplate its name). Thus, the “rescues” I’ve been called in on are such cases, in which the actions of the owners are alleged to be at fault. In the ordinary sense of the word rescue, the animals above were rescued, but not from human owners.


  10. I started working at the North Carolina State University Vet School in January. I’ve been very familiar with this 30 year-old school but didn’t know about the student-run Turtle Rescue Team until I got here.

    My cubicle is right next to the staff technician* that manages the TRT and I’ve been having a great time learning more about what they do.

    They don’t actually go out to rescue turtles, but people from all around can bring injured turtles to be treated and rehabilitated. Most of the time the turtles are released (in the same area they were found). Turtles that cannot be released usually end up as pets of students or staff. Here’s their Facebook page where you can go for more info:

    One interesting story about London (this year they are using city names), who I’ll be using in an instructional video soon. She’s a big red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans. She’s ready to leave TRT but the problem is, while red-eared sliders live here they are not native. This one could have been wild or could have been a pet–she was found outdoors. Red-ears are invasive in NC and have hybridized with our indigenous yellow-bellied sliders (T. scripta scripta).

    Here at the vet school not everyone worries as much about ecology as biologists and ecologists do and releasing this turtle might seem a fine idea–since there are so many here anyway. Some think there’s a good chance she’s wild and she’ll survive, so why not release her? But last I heard it sounds like they are trying to find her a home instead.

    Anyone want an aquatic turtle? Build a lovely pond and get her some friends.

    To readers here, what do you think about London’s ecological situation? If her species is already established in the area what problems are there in releasing her? We will probably never be able to get this species out of NC. Isn’t the movement of species a natural part of ecology? Isn’t this evolution at work?

    Here’s a fact sheet about the species:

    *By the way, I’m super envious that he and his PI will be heading to the Galapagos in a few weeks.

    1. What to do with individuals of invasive species can sometimes be a dilemma, and what is right to do can depend on the exact extent to which the ‘invasion’ has taken hold. Red-eared sliders have also been released in Wisconsin, and successfully overwinter here, although I do not know of any cases of them breeding. When we did turtle surveys, the Department of Natural Resources asked us not to release any exotics we caught, so the sole red-ear we caught now resides with me. (Members of native species were all released at site of capture.) My inclination would be to not release London, but to keep it as a pet.

      For something so thoroughly established as say starlings or English house sparrows, no practical purpose could be served by not letting them go, but on the other hand I can’t see expending any scarce wildlife rehabilitation resources on treating such species.


  11. Sorry Greg, I forgot to mention how much I enjoyed your post.
    I love the pics too.

    It’s so great that you regularly check that stairwell for unfortunates. Keep it up!

  12. Another story: Back in 2008, I was bicycling home from the house of a disabled guy I work with- as I passed a big power line that crosses the road (the original woods has been left unmolested in a strip on both sides of the mowed power line “lane”) I saw a box turtle topple off of the curb and land upside down in the street. I stopped, of course, having never seen one actually IN town before. Not having anything to put it in, I pulled out my T-shirt and slung him(?) in front of me, holding the handlebars with one hand on the 6-block trip home. I put him in an old galvanized tub with some dirt in my bedroom (the same tub I had used for turtles and snakes when a child). As usual, he didn’t want to stick his head out when I was around, but after a couple of days I had him gobbling down worms and crickets as fast as I could feed them to him. A friend drove him out to a wooded area on some land he owned and released him by a small pond. I hope there’s a mate for him out there somewhere!

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