Making Things Right

Sometimes bad things happen. This summer, I have been able to watch as an unfortunate circumstance was made right.

Turtles and tortoises are pretty much hard-wired to do what they were made to do – find food, find shelter, mate, lay their eggs, hibernate, repeat. Being so instinctive has helped them to survive for a very long time, but sometimes those instincts work against them. They don’t adapt quickly to changes in their environment, such as roads intersecting their nesting routes.***

This summer, a female common snapping turtle, Chelydra serpentina serpentina, was struck by a car and killed while crossing a road. A quick-thinking observer picked up the turtle and took it to the local vet school. The turtle turned out to be a gravid (egg-carrying) female. Her eggs were promptly removed and were brought to the zoo for incubation.

Snapping turtle eggs in early June. 19 eggs is on the low end of average.

Snapping turtle eggs in early June. 19 eggs is on the low end of average.

Incubating reptile eggs is a trickier business than hatching other critters. When the eggs are retrieved from a nest, they must remain in the exact position in which they were found. If they are turned, the embryos can separate from the egg and drown. They need to come with a giant “This end up!” sticker.

I don’t have a lot of experience with turtle eggs. I’m a tortoise gal, myself. When I looked at these eggs, I didn’t have a whole lot of hope. So many of the eggs were dented, and those bright white spots are calcifications. Weird. But It have learned enough to know that we will always err on the side of caution. The eggs were carefully placed in vermiculite and set up for incubation.

The eggs were also candled. Candling is when a light is shined through the egg to check for any development.


As expected, no development was noted. It would be very unlikely to see growth in recently-laid eggs, anyway, so the eggs were incubated with crossed fingers.

A few weeks later, the eggs were candled again.

Note the veins running through the egg. This egg is fertile! The shadow beneath is the developing embryo!

Note the veins running through the egg. This egg is fertile! The shadow beneath is the developing embryo.

Holy cow! Several of the eggs showed signs of development.

Yesterday, I got an email telling me there was someone waiting to meet you all.

Check him (her?) out! Yes, that's a quarter for size comparison.

Check him (her?) out! Yes, that’s a quarter for size comparison. The turtle is covered with vermiculite. Once it has its first bath, seeing features will  be much easier.

Click to enlarge any of them you’d like to see more closely.

Looking at the tray of eggs, I would guess there are at least five others that will hatch. How soon? Hopefully really soon. Once the babies have emerged, they will stay at the zoo only a week or two before they are released back into the wild. They know all that they need to know to survive. That’s where the hard-wiring has the advantage.

I hope to post updates and pictures of any subsequent hatchings.. Fingers crossed that a few more make it. About 70% of nests in the wild are lost to predation, so this little guy is ahead of the game, despite its precarious entry into the world.

***Turtles sometimes cross roads to get to and from breeding grounds. If you ever find a turtle walking across a road and want to help it, put it across the road in the direction it was facing. If you put it back where it came from, it will only turn around and head back to where its homing device is telling it to go. Also, don’t stop in the middle of a busy, busy road. You’ll both get squashed.

32 thoughts on “Making Things Right

  1. A few years back at the aquarium here they had a game where you’re a turtle trying to hatch and get to the ocean. It was a very difficult game to win, and mostly because of human-related problems. Great idea, though – it really drove home the harshness of life in a human-dominated world.

  2. Aw, yay! This makes me so happy. I love the attitude. This baby is ready for ANYTHING life throws at it. “Look at ME! I have survived AGAINST ALL ODDS! I AM THE COOLEST!” it says!

  3. Love this! And would love to have your “job,” if that’s what you call it. (I would call it “play.”)

    We are avid turtle-helpers. We like to pull slightly off the road to the right, though directly behind the crossing turtle, so cars can still pass safely around us and not accidentally squash the little guy. When there are no coming or passing cars, one of us will get out and move it closer to its destination. During laying season, we will save dozens in this way. We’ve thought about putting a homemade “Turtle and Gator X-ing” sign at our busy waterway crossing during peak times.

    So many still get pummeled, though. It’s tough being an other-than-human creature on this planet.

    PS — Angie found a shell at our creek today, most probably a wounded red-ear who backed up to a log and expired and decomposed. It’s in perfect condition and many of the bones were in tact. She put it all in a bag and carries it around to astound strangers. Named it “Shelby.”

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    • It was a few weeks in. It differs between species, but for the snapping turtles, the candling photo was taken about 7 weeks into incubation, though veining would have shown up much earlier.

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