The Turtle Man

Credit: mattbuck, own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

This tale is the story of how I ended up one fine spring day leaving the confluence of two great rivers in Illinois, at the wheel of a rental car with a backseat full of hundreds of turtle eggs packed carefully into bins. I'd acquired the eggs courtesy of the turtle man, a man of some mystery about his person, his life, his living quarters, and his love of all things turtle. With that last, at least, we were in profound sympathy.

How did I meet the turtle man? Having spent the previous five years up to my ears in turtle eggs purchased from commercial turtle farms, I had a research need. I needed eggs from turtles living in the wild. From places that I knew had been contaminated with pesticides and from other places that had avoided such contamination. My goal? To move from testing pesticides in lab-controlled conditions toward the effects of real-life of exposures in these animals. 

The turtles in question don't have sex chromosomes. Instead, they develop as male at low temperatures and as female at high temperatures. But as I'd demonstrated, exposing eggs to certain pesticides, even at low temperatures, would lead to development of females. It was the same thing that exposing the eggs to estrogen did: It made females. In other words, to the developing turtles, these pesticides were like an estrogenic hormone.

Making that happen in a lab is one thing. But what did exposure in real life do, through a female turtle exposed to pesticides and producing and laying the eggs? My quest to answer that query led me to the turtle man. Let's call him "John." In googling around, I'd found that John, the turtle man, had developed a technique that would cause a turtle to lay eggs on command. As long as I knew where each turtle had come from, I could collect her eggs and investigate associations between origins in contaminated areas and the development of embryos as female. 

The turtle man's technique involved another hormone, one that's gotten a lot of press lately: oxytocin. It's been mistakenly dubbed the "cuddle" hormone, although it's not particularly cuddly in many, many ways. One of those ways is what it does during labor in women: Its buildup contributes to the uterine contractions that force the massive squeezing of the body's most powerful muscle so that you can push a giant-headed offspring through a space that's much, much too small. There's nothing cuddly about that, although it's quite useful. Turns out that oxytocin also forces the contractions necessary for a female turtle to expel eggs from her oviducts, the tubes where they lie maturing until she's ready to lay.

Egg-laying is a much different process from human childbirth. Women I've seen in childbirth are nothing like a turtle. They're in pain. Often, there is noise – grunting, screaming, moaning. The experience of crowning is anything but zen. But a female turtle? They're animals in the Zone. In the midst of their egg laying, they are unflappable, immovable. They're in a different world – turtlespace? – as they methodically dig their deep holes, carefully position themselves above them, and deposit their clutches of eggs. Then ... they leave. That's it. Perhaps that's one of the reasons they're so zen about it all: Somehow they know that parental care is not in their future.

As I learned from John the turtle man, if you catch a female turtle on her way away from the water, toward her targeted egg-laying location, you can scoop her up, take her to your lab, inject her with oxytocin, and collect her eggs that way. You know where she came from, so you can check that area for levels of contaminants and determine if there's any association between the hatchlings' sex and the contamination in the mother's swimming and stomping grounds. This much I'd gathered from John in a brief exchange of emails that led to my booking a flight to southern Illinois where two mighty rivers meet. What I hadn't gathered was the intensity of the turtle man and his ongoing battle to study, rescue, preserve, and understand this ancient and strangely resilient reptile.

I landed in Illinois and caught a cab to a hotel that stood in the middle of a mall parking lot. The only eatery open at the late, late Illinoisian hour of 9:30 p.m. was an Arby's. I hadn't eaten at an Arby's in probably 30 years, and deities willing, won't do so again for another 30. The next morning, I appeared in the hotel lobby at the appointed early hour and there he was, the turtle man. Quite tall. Beard that was a Grizzly Adams/ZZ Top mashup. Beat-up pickup truck that probably was in existence the last time I'd eaten at Arby's. Jeans possibly last washed at about the same time. A large, friendly black dog named Dixie. Thank God for the dog because neither John nor I were exactly People-people, and Dixie served as a furry, damp ice breaker from the minute we met.

Dixie was damp because John had already been at work that morning, saving turtles. As I soon discovered, this area of Illinois was, literally, crawling with turtles. Sometimes, these turtles crawled onto highways. Highways that transected their old byways, interfered with their transit from water to egg-laying spot. Sometimes, that trip across the asphalt would be their last. As John told me, locals would often go out of their way to run over the slow-mo reptiles, making it a sort of vile game to take out an animal that had no chance of escaping, one that simply was trying to work around the human infrastructure blocking its ancient paths.

Whenever he saw a turtle crushed in the middle of the road or struggling in a roadside gutter, John would swerve his battered truck to the side, hop out, grab the turtle, and place it in a cooler he had at the ready in truck bed. If the turtle was obviously a goner, he'd put it out of its misery as soon as possible. If it seemed like it might survive, he'd keep it to nurse it back to health safely away from roads and cars and cruel local drivers. Either way, he'd get the eggs if any were there.

John knew all of the secrets of the Way of the Turtle. He knew where they emerged to lay. He knew specific agricultural fields, even the specific shade of specific trees that turtles seemed to favor. We spent two days haunting sloughs, lurking in duckweed, sneaking around in cornfields as Dixie directed us to where the terrapins were calmly, methodically shifting dirt between the cornrows with their webbed hindfeet, readying a hole for their eggs. 

At the end of each day, we'd head with our haul to a large open-air warehouse where John injected turtles with oxytocin, collected eggs, incubated eggs, nursed injured turtles to health, and completed with compassion the cruel work of drivers getting their jollies by crushing wildlife with their wheels. I quickly learned that when a turtle has her head withdrawn and her tailed curled in, it can be hard to tell which end is which. I also quickly learned that telling the difference is important because when you hold a turtle by the head end, the turtle will bite the hell out of your hand, you will drop the turtle in surprise, and you will yell out an expletive that will echo around the warehouse. 

During our two days together at the confluence of these two mighty rivers in a fertile Illinois river valley, I learned a few things about the turtle man that had nothing to do with turtles. He had a couple of ex-wives and was working on another. He had a bed in his office, which was packed floor to ceiling with files, specimens, and the long-accumulated detritus of years of field work. Thanks to the ongoing contretemps with his current wife, that office was his home. 

In spite of the mess, before my arrival, John had method. He'd carefully collected dozens of turtle eggs for me, numbering each one in order, noting the location of the female who'd laid them, and placing them in bins lined with several inches of water-dampened vermiculite for safe passage. After two days of assisting him, I'd gotten a good idea of the lay of the turtles' land--of his land--and was ready for an early morning start and a 1000-mile drive back to my university. I said goodbye to Dixie, I bid adieu to John. Truth be told, I was ready to hit the road, to be alone for a couple of days of driving. Alone, that is, except for the several hundred turtle eggs nestled in the backseat of my rental car. 

In the intervening decades since I drove away with those eggs, I'd thought periodically about the turtle man, about Dixie, about that truck, and about stalking egg-laying turtles in the cornfields of southern Illinois. I had been thinking about the Turtle Man lately, and remembering my brief time with him, Dixie, and the backroads of Illinois. And I also have been thinking about the Linking Landscapes study being run in Massachusetts, which began years after my experiences in Illinois. One of its goals is to reduce the death that our roadways inflict on turtles. This project invites community science enthusiasts to help identify where turtles are most in danger near roadways so that researchers can take steps to limit the threat. After all, not everyone can be like John, devoting his days from dawn to dusk tracking turtles, rescuing them or their eggs, monitoring their every egg-laying move with the help of a dog named Dixie. Not everyone can be the Turtle Man.


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