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This is probably a silly question but my curiosity has bubbled over.

I ride mountain bike trails around 5-6 times a week and generally I will see turtles on the trail 2-4 times. Sometimes I even see 2 or 3 turtles in one ride. I wonder if anyone else experiences this?

They are always right in the middle of the trail just chilling, out of their shell. I usually move them off of the trail out of fear of seeing a smashed up turtle on the ride back. I am not sure if location matters, but I ride in and around West Alabama. The trails I see them on are generally very dry and rocky. Also, I have noticed that most of them are not in direct sunlight when sitting on the trail. The canopy is usually pretty thick so, (I assume) there is not much difference in the location other than the debris (leaves, pine straw, etc) being more cleared on the trails.

I don't know specifically what kind of turtles these are but they all seem to be alike in size and shell pattern. Here are some pictures of a few that I have seen. Please excuse the bad quality:

Turtle 1

Turtle 2

Turtle 3

My Question: Why do turtles sit in the middle of bike trails and should I be moving them off the trail?

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This is an interesting question. Interacting with wildlife is a tough subject to address with an all encompassing answer, but it is worth exploring. –  WTHarper Jun 24 '13 at 14:25
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Where I live, many species of turtles endangered, to the point where they put up turtle crossing signs, and in some places they've placed culverts under the road for the turtles. The turtles aren't big enough to cause any damage to a car, but they still don't want you running over them. Since they are cold blooded, they are probably on the trail to get some sun and warm up. Moving them off the trail might not help in this situation because they will probably just move right back onto the trail. Also, some turtles have salmonella, so be sure to wash you hands. –  Kibbee Jun 24 '13 at 14:32
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Although an interesting question, it doesn't really belong on Bicycles, does it? –  gerrit Jun 24 '13 at 17:10
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@gerrit because running into wildlife on bike trails isn't specific to cyclists? –  Carrie Kendall Jun 24 '13 at 21:37
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@CarrieKendall Unless the turtles specifically target bike trails (which I doubt), the question why are they there is quite a bit broader than applying to bicycling... –  gerrit Jun 25 '13 at 9:05
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2 Answers

up vote 11 down vote accepted

All through my childhood I observed land turtles - more than half of the garden was turtle territory. The reasons for this behavior that immediately spring to mind are:

  • Being cold blooded animals they rely very much on sunlight and warm temperatures during the day to be active. So (like lizards and snakes), they like to chill out in all those places where there is no shade. Rocky grounds are preferred because they are great heat reflectors. So an open rocky path is a great choice for them, because no plants grow there to cast a shadow.

  • Females travel long distances to lay eggs. Males travel long distances to deploy semen.

  • You will not be the first person passing through there, so you can expect the turtles to be fed once in a while by tourists. It is natural for them to check on the point of feeding often, hoping for some more.

  • Some turtles eat all kinds of things you offer them, and it's neither good nor necessary. One example is meat. Once I observed one of our turtles eat a mouse our cat had killed and left around. We had to separate the turtle for a long time from the others because it would bite everything that moved (including me). Once they taste treats they will hang around desperate for more.

Should you move them? You definitely should! Even though they can take quite a hit and throw the cyclist down. He is probably in bigger danger than the turtle depending on the velocity - but if we can avoid both risks of injury, lets to that (btw I find it great that you are concerned about this issue - kudos to you!)

You have to know that moving turtles is an extremely intense experience for them. My mother would tell us to pick them up slowly, and put them back where they were, always move them in the direction that they were looking/walking. If they wandered around for a while, they will be lost if you put them down farther down the path! It's what my mother would patiently explain. I know she read a lot of books about land turtles. She bread successfully on multiple occasions, so she must know her stuff. Her oldest turtle is over 70 by now. You can read more about helping turtles across roads(bicycle/highway/other) here: HELP a turtle. It's from the Minnesota Herpetological Society, and I judge it as reliable source. It also confirms what I remember.

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Good answer. Minor question: for those that are facing forward on the trail (ie not left of right) would you suggest putting them downhill or uphill? I am concerned that if I put them uphill they will stumble back down towards the trail but I don't know what's easier for them. Thanks for kudos :] –  Carrie Kendall Jun 24 '13 at 14:57
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@CarrieKendall It's not and easy situation. The best solution would be sitting down and protecting to turtle until it turns walking directly towards either side, or shuffles along of it by itself. In the meantime you are there to protect it. But since this can take hours and you also have a life to live, I'd suggest moving it to nearest the side of the path, facing the same way. Hopefully it will walk down the side and stay somewhat out of the way. But yeah, it's an unlucky situation. Resist trying to deposit is farther off the trail. Instead, trust in people seeing and avoiding it. –  anaheim Jun 24 '13 at 15:14
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Here is the "duh" answer... Turtles use the trail for the exact same reason you do, which is because it is the easiest place to walk (duh!). This is particularly true of turtles because their short legs makes walking on a smooth, hard trail easier than wading through loose leaf litter, climbing over downed tree limbs, rocks, etc. I know this because I walk and drive in the forest and range lands every day - I have seen turtles, snakes, deer, cows, skunks, racoons, and even a mountain lion walking on trails and roads. Again, they are just plain easier to get around on.

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