There’s something about a reptile.
With their scaly skin and their cold blood, reptiles seem so primordial, like they just crawled out of the ooze. When I was a kid, I was always the one who wanted to hold the snake when we did the field trip to the zoo. I love the weird things lizards can do, like change color and grow their tails back. Say what you will for the higher primates – they can’t do that.
Since we moved here, I’ve developed a particular fondness for snapping turtles. If paleontologists hadn’t already established that dinosaurs were reptiles, all they’d have to do is take one look at a snapping turtle. That face! Those teeth! Those folds of leathery skin!
Snapping turtles are probably the strangest creatures in our little pondside ecosystem (barring insects, which are the weirdest things going). They live a very long time – some estimates go as high as 100 years. They can thrive in highly polluted waters – sewer systems, even. They hibernate in the soft mud at the bottom of a pond, where they burrow down and go without breathing for six months. Six months!
What’s weirdest to me is that, if you believe the scientists, the snapping turtles we find sunning themselves on a log look almost exactly like the ones who lived over 200 million years ago. I do believe the scientists, mostly because a snapping turtle looks indestructible. All it needs is crenellation and gun turrets, and it’s a fortress on legs.
We see small turtles in our pond pretty regularly, and we occasionally find big ones crawling around on the property. Or maybe it’s the same big one, and we see it over and over. We didn’t know.
So, last September, when we found a turtle with a 15-inch carapace slowly making its way across our driveway, we thought we’d find out. Kevin took a bottle of spray paint in OSHA-orange (we happened to have it for our lobster pot buoys) and painted a big dot on its back.
I was a little worried that a big fluorescent splotch was a bit conspicuous, but Kevin pointed out that an animal with no natural predators doesn’t have much to worry about in the visibility department. Our turtle, Osha, didn’t seem fazed by his new coloration, and went on his way. (Or it could have been her way. I’m betting on he only because he’s very large for a female.)
Kevin and I were sitting outside the turkey pen, waiting to see if the birds would roost for the night on the new roost bar Kevin put up in the pen. It was still, and the only noise was the occasional call from frog or bird. The rustle that came out of the woods was clearly neither of those. It was something big.
We got up to investigate, following the sound of the rustle. When whatever it was didn’t flee into the trees at our approach, we had a pretty good clue that it was a turtle. “Flee” isn’t in its vocabulary.
And sure enough, there was the saurian head and the two no-nonsense feet sticking out of the underbrush. We moved the leaves aside, and could see the faded remains of an orange dot.
I could not have predicted how happy it made me to see Osha back. Partly was the simple satisfaction of doing an experiment with a positive result. Is it the same turtle? Yes! It’s the same turtle. And part of it was probably that, in putting a dot on his back, we’d branded him “our” turtle, and established a connection. But I think I also had a sense that, if the same turtle keeps returning to the same woods by the same pond, year after year, all’s right with the world.
Of course, when he finds the same two jackasses with the same can of spray paint, year after year, he may change his habits.
I hope not.