Friday, October 14, 2011

Turtle Falls Off Forest Cliff: You Won’t Believe His Journey Home

EDITOR NOTE:Many thanks to Laura S. at for the original post...

Written By Steve O’Neil
In June, a man named Uncle Raoul was driving through a rocky gorge in Western North Carolina when he came upon an adult female Eastern Box Turtle sitting in the road.  He stopped his car to help the turtle across the street because they are usually not lost and do not need to be rescued and do not need to be taken to a new location — but this one was different.

The gorge had steep cliffs on either side of the road and the turtle had an eye injury that rendered its left eye swollen closed.  The man deduced that the turtle had probably slipped and fallen from the woods at the top of the cliff and had bounced and rolled down into the road only moments before he had arrived on the scene.  He understood that the turtle needed veterinary care so he picked her up and took her home.
He promptly networked with a friend to get the turtle to me close to 50 miles away.  I am a wildlife rehabilitator so I took the turtle — Cullasaja I have named her — to my reptile veterinarian Dr. Coleman at Haywood Animal Hospital in Hendersonville, NC.  Dr. Coleman said that Cullasaja was uninjured other than the swollen eye, so he prescribed special eye drops to relieve the conjunctivitis.
About a month later, Cullasaja’s eye opened to reveal a damaged pupil and an unusual blue colored iris (most female Eastern Box Turtles have brownish irises).  Dr. Coleman said that it looked like she had a badly damaged eye and that it seemed to be sightless and that she may have injured it in the fall.
A Plastic Tub Full of Moss Is No Home For a Turtle
Although blind in the left eye, Cullasaja needed to be returned to the wild because a plastic tub full of leaves and moss is not a home for a wild box turtle.  She needed to be back in the wild as close to home as possible so that she could be an active part of a healthy ecosystem.  The problem was — where exactly was her home? I contacted the woman who had brought Cullasaja to me and she put me in touch with Uncle Raoul who had found her in the road.  He sent me several Google Earth images of her discovery location and he even drove back to the site to determine where exactly he had found her.
Then we talked on the phone and determined the best course of action.  We decided that because box turtles have a very strong homing instinct she would need to be returned as close as possible to her discovery location — but that location was not safe in any way due to the steep cliffs and the road.  We eventually decided that the forested mountainside several hundred yards above the cliffs would be the best site to release her because the cliffs below the road were just too steep and rocky and at the bottom of the cliffs was the fast flowing Cullasaja river.
Then, in late August I set out to return Cullasaja to as close to her home as possible.  I had no difficulty finding the site and after a drive in the woods along a wooded mountain ridge, I found a good spot to release her and said goodbye to Cullasaja.  I had no way of knowing that where I released her was her home area — but I did know that it was very near her discovery location on the road below the cliffs so her home area was not far away.  I also know that box turtles are better navigators than humans so I feel assured that after I released her near her home she would have oriented towards her preferred area and would then find it on her own, even with just one eye.
As I drove away, I felt a great sense of accomplishment knowing that I had helped a turtle get back to its home.  This would not have been possible without all of the people who helped make it happen, especially Uncle Raoul.  Thank you to you all — you know who you are!
Watch a video of Cullasaja’s release...  

A note about box turtles that you find crossing the road: turtles crossing roads are not lost — they are on the move between points of “business” — feeding sites, wintering sites, watering and nesting sites and so on.  Unless they are injured as Cullasaja was, they do not need to be rescued, only moved across the road to the side that they are walking or pointing towards.  Simply pick them up and carry them into the woods a few yards and release them.
Box turtles are land turtles, so do not drop them into deep water since they cannot swim — they will sink and drown. Please do not take them home as a “pet” or move them to a new place.  This stresses them and can cause sickness and death.  Relocated turtles that are moved far from home will often attempt to walk home and will usually die in the process.  Simply help them across the road: that is all they need.
If you find an injured turtle, please take it to a veterinarian or wildlife rehabilitator and be sure to remember the exact discovery location so the turtle can be returned after it recovers. For more information on my non-profit reptile rescue and nature education program, visit Earthshine Nature Programs.

Steve O'Neil is staff Naturalist at Earthshine Mountain Lodge in Lake Toxaway, NC. His Earthshine Nature Program teaches nature knowledge,  awareness and conservation through exciting hands on education to people of all ages. Check out his Nature Series Videos on Youtube.

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