Turtles but one reminder of need to share the planet

Some cultures extol the creatures, while some individuals extol the species’ charms

This past January, driving east on State Road 70, I stopped on the bridge over Horse Creek and looked down to find three cooters wearing “overcoats.” They were covered in duckweed, a tiny plant that floats in ditches and other still waterways.

The ‘companionable’ cooter at Curry Creek Preserve. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

Years ago, I became interested in cooters when I found a female digging a hole in my yard and then methodically laying her eggs in the age-old rite of spring. She had come up from a pond three houses away and somehow had navigated three chain link fences along the way. She took her time — a good full hour — while a crow stood by patiently waiting for her to finish so he could have himself some lunch. As the cooter made her way back to the water, I was tempted to stand guard over those precious eggs deposited despite such obstacles, but I reminded myself that the crow had to eat, too.

An opportunistic crow waits for lunch. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

The cooter, a water turtle, is not to be confused with the gopher tortoise, the largest land turtle east of the Mississippi River and once so plentiful it was called a “prairie chicken” during the lean years of the Great Depression. Today, gopher tortoises in Florida are a protected species because of loss of habitat. In a “them versus us” world it is almost always us!

Turtles continue to crop up in my life. I often run into gopher tortoises at Oscar Scherer State Park. At first glance, they look so reptilian, straight out of the long-lost world of the dinosaur. But to me over the years, their countenance has taken on a kind of sweetness. And I am always amazed at their resilience in time of fire and flood.

This cooter in a ditch along the Tamiami Trail near Miami is having his evening meal of spatterdock blossoms. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

Recently, at Curry Creek Preserve in Venice, a cooter accompanied me down a trail. We walked companionably for quite a long way while I kept a respectful distance, photographing him and expecting him to flee at any moment. But, no, he stayed on course right beside me until he reached his destination — a tiny stream running through a culvert — and then swam off without a backward glance.

I am no longer surprised at the tameness of animals. Cooters are part of the pet trade, so perhaps someone had dropped this creature off in the park. Or, perhaps, like many animals, he has been forced to adjust to us, the dominant species.

Fire promotes growth of grasses and wildflowers in the pine flatwoods and other Florida habitats. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

Over 7.6 billion strong, we define what is being called the Anthropocene epoch, reflecting our enormous impact on Planet Earth. We have changed the earth, air and water — three of the ancient elements — and suppressed the fourth, fire, which is as natural and necessary (especially in Florida) as the other three. We ignore animals such as the cooter, who make every effort to survive on the fringes of our existence.

In religions and cultures all over the world, turtles have played a larger role. They are extolled for their wisdom, longevity and endurance in overcoming obstacles, like that cooter in my back yard. In the mythology of some cultures, turtles hold up the earth — or the sky.

A peninsula cooter makes itself at home at Blue Springs Park in High Springs. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

The Florida Museum website lists 51 species of turtles found in Florida; it includes the five species of sea turtles that nest on Florida beaches. Mote Marine Laboratory runs a conservation program that monitors sea turtle nesting. In 2017, Mote tabulated 4,424 loggerhead turtle nests on Sarasota County beaches, 1,700 of which were on “my” beach in Nokomis. Just 79 green turtle nests were counted.

We are all in this together. On the beach, on area roads, respect turtles — or any wildlife, for that matter.

On its website, Mote Marine Laboratory offers the do’s and don’ts of getting along with sea turtles, such as not figuratively hunting down turtles at night, keeping beach furniture well back from the waterline and — if you live on the water — turning out lights so hatchlings can find their way to the Gulf.

A cormorant and cooter hang out at Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve in Fort Myers. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

On the road, stop if you encounter a turtle. It will eventually get where it is going and you can then proceed to your own destination with peace of mind.

Gopher tortoises can be found in the oak scrub and pine flatwoods at Oscar Scherer State Park. Their spacious underground burrows offer many other animals protection during times of fire. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri
Becky Zremski, with her grandson, has worked to conserve gopher tortoises for many years. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri
The fate of tortoises, turtles and so many other creatures is in our hands. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri
A Mote Marine volunteer holds a newly hatched sea turtle. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

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