Essay: For millions of years, the painted turtle endures, but how?

Essay: For millions of years, the painted turtle endures, but how?

Chores push our walk at Duarte’s Pond into the evening. By that time the water lilies are tightly closed and there are no painted turtles on the log where they usually bask in the hot part of the day. The three of us pause on the wooden causeway to watch the swallows dip and soar, skimming the still surface of the pond for insects. We could linger longer but the dogs urge us on.

Walking silently through the wild laurel and fragrant black locust, I try to figure out what it is about the sight of a painted turtle that fills me with happiness. Is it the funny way they maneuver into the water — so still and then so quick? The satisfying plop when they hit the water? Or is it simply the thrill of a moment’s connection with such an ancient animal?

Turtles have been making their homes on our planet for more than two hundred million years. A distant relative of the turtle I see now lived side by side with dinosaurs. They watched the arrival of mammals and the gradual emergence of us human beings. Somehow safe in their armored shells, they endured and adapted to every manner of change in climate and geology. Think of the depth of information and experience stored in their DNA.

The early evening glow glazes the woods in soft amber light. After meandering through my favorite beech grove, we emerge into an open field and stumble onto an abundance of wild strawberries. Kneeling in the damp grass, we graze on the tiny fruit staining our fingers a satisfying rich red. It’s time to pick up the pieces of our daily lives, but we linger, reluctant to give up this moment.

When we move on, our pace is faster. It’s dinnertime. That’s when we notice the painted turtle on the edge of the sandy road. Straddled over a conical hole about three inches deep this amphibian is hard at work. It retracts its head for a few moments but soon eases it back out, apparently unfazed by presence of three middle-aged women and four dogs. All thoughts of leaving evaporate. We shoo away the dogs and settle down to watch.

A glimpse of white by the tail emerges and transforms into an ovoid gelatinous egg. The size of a small grape, it drops soundlessly into the nest. With her back left foot the mother pats it gently into place. After a pause of a minute, maybe two, the process begins again.

The nest’s position is so horribly vulnerable. A car drives by and we signal the driver to stop, so we can point out the turtle and her nest. We mark the place with sticks so people will avoid it when they drive by. The driver says she’ll be careful and alert the others who live along the road, but her passenger tells us this happened last spring too, and the eggs did not survive.

The turtle meanwhile continues her work. She deposits four more eggs into her nest as we watch, crouching next to her in the twilight. Each time she uses the same back leg to position the egg the way she wants it. I wonder if she is a lefty like I am.

None of us want to move, but finally we leave her. I come back half an hour later. She’s gone. The dirt is smoothed over, and the sticks we left are the only sign anything happened here. Her job is done.

With luck, these eggs will hatch in 72 to 80 days and the babies will make their way to the water on their own; easy prey for a variety of predators. Our investment in this turtle’s success was instantaneous and visceral. We want her eggs to make it. I mark off the hatch dates on my calendar.

The next morning, when I return again to check the nest, it has been savaged. The ground is dug up and bits of shell now hardened are carelessly strewn around. My spirit sinks. Had we drawn attention to the nest? What messages had we left behind?

How any turtle survives is breathtaking. Each step from egg to maturity is fraught with danger. The list of their predators is long and includes birds, amphibians, reptiles, and numerous mammals, including us. It’s discouraging but not surprising to learn that turtles are threatened worldwide.

Imagine being wired with everything you need to know from the moment you are born. So much about being human involves practice and instruction. It comforts me to learn that sometimes a painted turtle will lay two clutches. There may already be a new batch of eggs waiting to hatch.