The Long Point Causeway is a gentle two lane road running over a small spit of marshland in Lake Erie. It’s lovely, bordered by trees and wetlands, and until recently, it was an apocalyptic hellscape straight out of Mad Max for the turtle species living nearby.
Turtles wandered onto the road in an effort to…well…get to the other side, either to access their nesting grounds or their winter hibernating habitats depending on the season. Other reptiles like snakes may have been attracted to the warm surface of the asphalt, where they could bask in the sun and take the chill off their cold-blooded bodies.
In 2003 the causeway was one of the top four roadways in the world for turtle mortality. Today, thanks to efforts of the community, that ranking has fallen dramatically.
Disturbed by the number of turtles (some endangered) that were getting flattened on the road, local resident Rick Levick and neighbors decided to put together a project that would keep the turtles off the pavement while still allowing these reptiles access to their favored habitats.
In 2006, they started the process of erecting fences made of durable fabrics and built light-filled tunnels under the road, the perfect size for turtles.
A study published on Friday in the Wildlife Society Bulletin shows that their efforts were successful. By looking at the data from five years before the project was built and comparing it to data collected five years later, the researchers showed that turtle mortality decreased a whopping 89 percent, and snake mortality declined by 28 percent.
But it’s the turtle success that has researchers the most excited.
“Turtles, their life history traits make them very susceptible to mortality,” says lead author Chantel Markle. “Some species take a very long time [up to 20 years] to reach the age of sexual maturity.” That means that it’s hard for the turtle population to bounce back after many individuals are killed on the road.
Keeping the turtles off the road requires two main components: fencing and culverts. Markle found that the fencing was most effective at keeping animals off the road when it was in a long unbroken line, but driveways and marinas meant that this wasn’t always a viable solution. In areas where the fencing had to be broken up, it was effective enough to curve the fence back in a gentle u-turn, guiding the turtle back to the safety of the wetlands.
And speaking of wetlands, the researchers had to use two different types of durable cloth fencing for two different landscapes. One had to be sturdy enough to withstand the moist conditions of the wetland, and another—for more exposed areas—was made out of mesh to allow strong winds to sweep right through them.
Culverts built under the road rounded out the strategy. These culverts or tunnels were a surprising success, with turtles starting to use them immediately after they were installed in 2014.
The methods used here, Markle says, could potentially be applied to other areas where turtles are having some difficulty crossing the road. But Markle says her biggest takeaway was just how much change people can make to their community and environment by working together.
“You can get together and make a difference,” Markle says. “It just takes perseverance.”