Cosmic Turtles, Part Three

On a warm Virginia day I walked to the Eastern Seaboard Coastline double tracks near our house and came to a small pond lying between the track grade and the woods.  A stand of wild irises grew in the water, along with rushes, green bubble-beaded algae, and sedges.  It was a small habitat not entirely suited for a water turtle, but I found one there—a five-inch spotted turtle who at sight of me dove into the water and scurried to bury himself in leaf litter at the puddle’s bottom.

The patterns on some turtle shells immitate sunlight spattering on vegetation or leafy pool bottoms.  The carapace of the spotted turtle, Clymmys guttata, mirrors the night sky.  The underlying shell color is deep space black, with yellow or yellow-white spots speckling the scutes, or shields of the carapace.  Some have only a few dots but many spotted turtles bear on their backs dozens of petite stars.  As children, we noticed that the smaller the turtle, the less the stars, which seemed only fair.

The water was shallow; I caught the turtle easily.  Lifting him up for closer inspection I found that all was not well.  He wore the usual stellar armor, black with a few unique constellations and star clusters.  But he lacked a front foot, one of his back legs stubbed off into a stump, and his tail doubled over on itself, the flesh between being fused.

Did this turtle lose his feet to a predator or an accident, or was he born without them?  If born without, did something go wrong with the egg or his genetics?  Was his condition indicative of contamination in his mother and/or father’s habitat?  Since female spotted turtles don’t nest until they reach their mid-teens and may not produce eggs every year, this turtle’s condition suggested something about the local spotted turtle ecology.  But what?  As a child, I imagined stories explaining his state: bare escapes, leaving a limb in the gaping mouth of a monster, or some transgression that had as punishment the humiliating fusion of his tail.

Otherwise, he seemed in good condition—no disease in the skin pockets where shoulders and neck came together or in skin flaps at the back legs.  Still, hindered as he was, I wondered how he managed to survive.  I called him a “he” because of the brown five o’clock shadow darkening his beak.  Females’ mouths are lighter in color, their tails shorter.  Of course, the length of this turtle’s misshapen tail could not be used to judge his gender.

In spite of the flush of pity I felt for this less-than-perfect being, I took him home to join my other specimens, kept in a “turtle pit,” a naval-surplus tank my father picked up at Norfolk Naval Base.  Nearly a dozen other spotted turtles occupied the tank temporarily.  A junior amateur herpetologist, I figured I could observe the new fellow for a few days, feed him if he’d accept it, and then release him with the others.

But when I went out the next morning to check on the turtles, “Stumpy” was missing.  He was the only one AWOL; all other turtles were present and accounted for.  I looked for a displaced basking rock that might have shifted too close to the wall during a turtle scuffle; there was none.  Well then, how did he get out and where did he go? I searched around the pit, thinking, he couldn’t have gotten very far away. But he was clean gone.  How a stump-footed turtle escaped an enclosure whole turtles couldn’t was a complete mystery.  I shook my head appreciatively. One lucky turtle.

A few days later I returned to the railroad tracks, located about two hundred and fifty to three hundred yards from our house.  The distance in between was made up of dense weeds, a drainage ditch with only a couple of plank bridges crossing it, and woods, thick enough to somewhat muffle the roar of passing freight and passenger trains.  As I passed the shallow pond, movement caught the corner of my eye.  My attention swung around.  A turtle dove for cover.  I waded in and caught it, only to find it was Stumpy.

He had made his way back to the puddle after my carrying him hundreds of feet in a direction I could safely assume he’d never traveled.  Furthermore, to return home he had negotiated serious obstacles, including the steep-sided drainage ditch.  Some turtles might have ended their journeys there and taken up at least temporary residence in the ditch water or worked their ways up- or downstream, but not Stumpy.  He braved the weedy jungle between our house and the forest, crossed the ditch, navigated the woods, and arrived back at his puddle.

Since I had always hand-transported other turtles to their location of capture to release them, I had never observed if they possessed a sense of direction, a “homing instinct” that guided them across unfamiliar territory.  Wondering if Stumpy’s presence at the pond was a fluke, I returned him to the pit.  Compared to other turtles he was only medium-sized.  I couldn’t see how he could possibly escape if bigger animals couldn’t.  Even standing against the wall on his good back leg with his arms outstretched he was too short to reach the rim.

But the next morning it was the same story—Stumpy had escaped in the night.  He took no companions with him—all other specimens of Clymmys guttata remained behind.

What was it about that Stumpy?  Was he a turtle Houdini?  A turtle Godel? Did he stack up his companions, like Dr. Seuss’s Yertle the Turtle, only to different purpose, clambering over them to freedom?

Did he teleport himself by means of that star chart spread open on his back?

I headed for the little pond by the railroad tracks.  Not there.  Returning home, I looked for him along the way, glimpsing neither scute nor star.  I decided to give him more time.  Some days out from his escape, I returned to the puddle and voila!  There he was: Stumpy come home.

This time I left him alone.  By magic or ingenuity he had earned his solitude.  Twice.