Turtles, cute and in danger

GROTON — The group of women inside UNION Coffee Roaster in Ayer did not seem like they were out to change the world as they sipped warm beverages and chatted.

But, they take a saying by Margaret Mead to heart. “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Like the anthropologist who studied disappearing cultures in the 20th century, these woman study disappearing species. Specifically, they are studying and trying to save local turtles.

Jennifer Petit is a long-term member of the Townsend Conservation Commission.

Darcy Donald moved to Groton a few years ago and was horrified when she saw so many dead turtles along the road.

They, along with Joan Caruso, are part of Groton Turtle Conservation. After a meeting with members of Massachusetts Fish and Wildlife, they took time to talk turtles: Which ones are endangered, what to do about it and how cute they are.

Identifying turtles and where they live and breed is an important first step in protecting them. Some turtles are relatively common, like snapping turtles. Others, like painted turtles, are harder to find.

Blanding’s turtles are one of the most rarely found and on the endangered species list. Shaped like a World War I helmet, these turtles with yellow under their chins do not breed until they are between 15 and 17 years old. They have nesting grounds in this area.

Spotted turtles, another species, are rare, they said, but some have been seen recently. “We need to get them documented,” Petit said.

“Take a photo and send it to us,” Donald said in a call for help from local residents. Be sure to get the underneath, called the plastron, if possible. The pattern on the belly of each turtle is unique, she said, like a person’s fingerprints.

Injured turtles can be helped. If a turtle’s shell is damaged, take it to the Tufts Wildlife Clinic in Grafton or to Carl Flinkstrom at the Lunenburg Veterinary Hospital for help.

They will ask for a donation, but do not charge to help wildlife, Petit said.

Turtles feel pain just like humans, Caruso said. Their nerves are part of their upper shell. It can take up to two years for an injured turtle to recover and be released into the wild.

“They have an incredible will to survive,” Donald said.

Sometimes, even dead turtles have offspring that live. Eggs can be harvested from the body of a dead female. Last year, a rehabilitator hatched 83 of 85 eggs that were acquired this way, they said.

GTC works with a wildlife rehabilitator but did not want to release the name. In addition to the fear of burglars looking for veterinarian drugs, a black market for turtles exists. They are worth lots of money in certain cultures and thieves have been known to raid breeding areas.

“It’s always our worry that after we do all this work that someone will just come in and scoop them,” Petit said.

“And eat them,” Caruso said.

Preventing turtle injuries is high on the list of priorities for these advocates. Turtles lay their eggs in wetlands and travel between bodies of water.

In their travels, they cross the roads. Many are crushed by passing vehicles.

After areas of high turtle mortality have been identified, there are some steps to take to help.

One of the simplest is signage. GTC is working with Tom Delaney, the Department of Public Works director in Groton, to install turtle crossing signs.

So far, with the help of the Girl Scouts, they have raised enough money for 13 permanent signs and posts, Donald said.

They had a few other suggestions for people wanting to help turtles. If one is crossing the road, bring it to the side it was heading for. Do not remove a turtle from its immediate environment; it will spend the rest of its life trying to get home.

Talking to people about turtles is part of their outreach plan. People were enthralled with what they had to say during Grotonfest last year.

“Joan and I, for eight hours, we stood up,” talking about turtles, Donald said. “We didn’t have time to drink our water or eat our lunch.”

“It’s so much fun,” Petit said.

In their eyes, turtles have a high cuteness factor. They passed around cell phones with photos of hatchlings, oohing and aahing.

“They’re the cutest things on earth,” Petit said.

They expressed great sympathy for snapping turtles, a beast small children are warned to avoid. Like the name suggests, they snap at things.

There is a reason for that. The protective covering on the bottom of the animal is small, leaving part of the bottom of the animal exposed, Petit said. When they are on land, they are vicious.

“They have to be able to protect themselves,” she said. “If you look at their little tummies there’s all this meat.”

They will leave you alone in the water, she said. Unless those waggling fingers look a bit too much like worms.

As hatchlings, the feared snappers are vulnerable to the smallest carnivores. “Chipmunks are the worst predators,” Petit said.

For drivers, there are two times of year to watch for those turtle crossing signs. Mother turtles will begin to move to egg-laying ground in early to mid-May. In the fall, the hatchlings will leave the grounds, crossing the road the other way, to get to their adult habitat.

The Groton Turtle Conservation can be found online at grotonturtles.org or email grotonturtles@gmail.com.

Follow Anne O’Connor on Twitter and Tout @a1oconnor.