Environmental Almanac: Turtle rescue yields surprise
Why did the turtle cross the road? Good question.
But the one that was headed north across University Avenue near Cunningham in Urbana during afternoon rush hour recently was fortunate that Sandra Mason noticed it when she did — then parked her car and ran back to grab it before it could be squashed by a less observant driver.
Mason, an educator with the University of Illinois Extension who is known to many for her expertise in horticulture, is also an accomplished naturalist. Her first impulse was to carry the turtle across the road in the direction it was headed, which is standard practice for moving turtles found on roads.
But she hesitated because that would've just put the turtle in a parking lot — not really a good spot, either. Beyond that, she was puzzled about its identity.
She knew from a glance it wasn't a snapping turtle. And she was fairly sure it wasn't any of the other turtles commonly seen in East Central Illinois. Its top shell, or carapace, seemed too dome-like for a painted turtle or a slider. But it was a dull, dark green in color, and had none of the markings that characterize box turtles. Hmmmm.
Because work commitments would prevent her from following up during the next couple of days, Mason contemplated releasing the turtle at nearby Crystal Lake Park without resolving the question of its identity. But what if she really had found something unusual?
So she called me to ask if I could help figure out what it was — and to convey it to our mutual friend Chris Phillips if it turned about to be a rarity. Phillips is a herpetologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey (a division of the UI Prairie Research Institute) and curator of the amphibian and reptiles collections for the state and the university.
A consultation with the "Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles of Illinois" showed that the beneficiary of Mason's efforts was a common musk turtle, a species that is, as the name implies, widely distributed. (Its range includes all of the eastern United States.)
But despite that, the "Field Guide" showed, no specimen of common musk turtle had ever been collected in Champaign County — so this one was noteworthy.
It spent the night in a cardboard box in my garage, and Phillips picked it up the next morning. He photographed it, drew blood for future DNA analysis, then let it go at Crystal Lake Park.
Chances are slim that anyone will ever again notice the common musk turtle that Mason rescued. It's less than 5 inches long, and it will seldom leave the water.
But Crystal Lake and other water bodies offer good opportunities for seeing other turtles at this time of year. On sunny days, look for painted turtles and red-eared sliders as they bask on logs or rocks.
My favorite spot for turtle watching locally is the Second Street Detention Basin in Champaign, where sliders of all sizes hang out. In addition, this summer they have been joined by a very large spiny softshell turtle.
The softshell is flatter and more circular than the sliders, and its limbs have a meatier look. In addition, it possesses an unmistakable snout, like a miniature version of an anteater's.
Think about it. If you get to know these common turtles, you'll be ready to recognize a rare one, whether it's near the water or crossing the road.
Some notes about the common musk turtle:
— It is distinguished by small size and a domed carapace; a pair of yellow lines on the head and face; fleshy tissue between plates on its bottom shell; and barbels on its chin and throat.
— It's also known as "stinkpot" because of the smelly fluid it releases when disturbed.
— This species seldom basks. When it does, it may climb high onto tree trunks that slope over water.
Environmental Almanac is a service of the University of Illinois School of Earth, Society and Environment, where Rob Kanter is communications coordinator. Environmental Almanac can be heard on WILL-AM 580 at 4:45 and 6:45 p.m. Thursdays.