COLUMN: Turtles on the move

A snapping turtle in Jones County. (Photo submitted)
Michele Olson
Jones County Naturalist

     Recently I have received quite a few calls about “turtles on the move” – encountered in yards, roadways, fields, and even in town.

     Turtles often move about in their territory as they seek a mate in the spring, seek nesting locations to lay eggs in early summer, travel within their territory seeking wetlands, streams, or food sources of their choosing throughout the summer, and return to prime hibernating locations in the fall. New hatchlings of many turtle species must also move from their nest site as they seek good habitat to stay safe from predators and find adequate food.

     If you encounter a turtle, you can do several things to ensure the turtle’s safety.

     • Leave them alone if they are not in danger.

     • If you decide to assist the turtle, don’t put yourself in danger.

     • Turn on your hazard lights and pull off to the side of the road, check for approaching traffic before getting out of your car to move a turtle. (Have your children stay in the car.)

     • Pick up the turtle if it is safe to do so by the back of its shell. (Use caution when handling turtles- all turtles can bite.)

     • Move the turtle off the road in the direction they were traveling.

     • Wash your hands after handling a turtle.

     • Do not remove the turtle from his territory.

     You can protect turtles by protecting nesting areas such as sandbars, sandy/gravely upland nesting sites, dry prairie remnants, and sandy pastures. Protect our water quality in wetlands, rivers, and streams by minimizing chemical usage and avoiding chemical drift and runoff. Help protect wetlands by telling others about the benefits they provide. Don’t litter and help pick up any litter you find. Drive slower and be on the lookout for turtles near wetlands, rivers, or areas where you have observed turtles crossing the road.

     Several species of turtles often encountered in eastern Iowa include the:

     • Painted turtle, easily identified by their bright red and yellow coloration on the bottom shell and bright yellow lines running down their legs and neck. These are the turtles that like to sun themselves on logs along the edge of the water spending a great majority of a sunny day “sun bathing” as we would say.

     • Snapping turtles, on the other hand, look almost prehistoric with their long spiked tail and jagged edge at the back of their top shell. They have a large head, super long neck, and often times a nasty disposition. They prefer to hang out on the bottom of the pond or river just waiting for a meal to swim past. Large snapping turtles can grow up to the size of a car tire and can prey on fairly large prey including mice, fish, frogs, ducklings, and goslings. These are the turtles most often harvested in Iowa by people for turtle meat.

     • Soft-shell turtle, also called leatherback turtles for the soft feel of their shell. This unique turtle has a flattened shell. These turtles like to hide below the water in sandy areas, where their shells blend in perfectly. They have a long neck and a very pointy nose which they stick out of the water like a miniature snorkel. Soft-shelled turtles prefer to catch and eat minnows, small fish, crayfish, insects, and aquatic plants. A lucky paddler or fisherman might spot one sunning itself along sandy beaches and rocky shorelines. Numbers of soft-shelled turtles throughout Iowa have been declining.

     • Blanding’s turtles, listed as threatened in Iowa, are semi-aquatic found near river and marsh like areas. This rather high domed turtle has a dark colored carapace and head with a mottling of yellow or light colored dots. Another distinctive feature is their bright yellow chin and throat. Their bottom shell is yellow with dark blotches on the outer margins of each scute.

     Ornate box turtles, listed as threatened, is Iowa’s only totally terrestrial turtle species and can be found in upland areas of dry sand prairie remnants and grazed pastures with sandy soil. This 4-to-6-inch long high domed turtle has distinctive yellow lines which radiate across their top shell like rays of sunlight camouflaging them perfectly in prairie thatch. Most active at dawn and dusk, these turtles spend most of their time underground.

     For more information on Iowa’s turtles visit and While you’re out and about, I hope you are lucky enough to spot one of Iowa’s magnificent turtles on the move.

     If you would like to share your sightings or help document an important turtle road crossing area take a picture and email your sighting to



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