SMASHING TURTLES: Clemson Student Uncovers a Dark Side of Human Nature

Why did the turtle cross the road?

Changing habitat, mating instinct, egg laying….  There are plenty of reasons why a healthy young box turtle would set out for adventure on the other side of a busy roadway.

Problem is, the population of South Carolina’s box turtles has declined—in part because of the reptile’s propensity for strolling out into traffic.

When Clemson University student Nathan Weaver, a 22-year-old senior in the School of Agricultural, Forest and Environmental Sciences, structured his research project, his goal was to better understand how to help turtles traverse the urban landscape to get to their nesting sites near the sea.  Along the way, however, Weaver exposed a moral flaw in some human beings:  He found that a certain number of motorists (about 2.62 percent in his original study) would swerve when they saw turtles in the road—not, as you might think, to avoid squishing the turtles under their tires, but to intentionally run over and smash them.  Still others tried to maneuver their vehicles to purposefully crush the little guys, but missed.

The Herald Online of York, Chester and Lancaster Counties, reporting on the story, assured readers that no turtles were killed in the conduct of the experiment.  Rather than putting real turtles in harm’s way, Weaver used realistic-looking rubber turtles, no bigger than a saucer.  He placed these faux turtles on the roadway, then watched as drivers sped past.  In his first hour of tabulating results, 267 cars passed; and of those, seven drivers “murdered” the rubber reptiles by intentionally driving over them.  Other drivers tried to hit the little critters but failed—showing themselves to be both heartless killers and bad drivers.

Weaver’s exposition of dastardly drivers is not the first such study.  Last July, NASA employee Mark Rober conducted a similar experiment, watching as drivers either passed by or purposefully flattened his carefully placed rubber turtles, snakes and tarantulas.  Of 1,000 cars in Rober’s study, six percent intentionally drove over the rubber animals.  Calling the snake and turtle killers who were caught on tape “cold-blooded rubber animal killers”, Rober told his story in a humorous YouTube video.

And even before these science-minded investigators charted the reptile abuse, the state of Maine has sought to protect two endangered species of turtles, Spotted and Blanding’s turtles.  From May to July, females undertake risky overland forays to reach nesting areas; and the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife has installed “Turtle Crossing” signs in the hope of reducing turtle road deaths.  Turtles can’t read, it’s said; but officials hope that motorists who encounter the signs will reduce their speed and increase their vigilance for potential road-crossing turtles.

Turtle smashing has even been immortalized in American literature.  According to the Herald Online:

Running over turtles even has a spot in Southern lore. The reptiles used to be ubiquitous, especially in the spring as the males sought mates and the females looked for nice places to lay eggs. South Carolina author Pat Conroy, in his novel “The Great Santini” based on growing up with his Marine father, has the fighter pilot father run over turtles during a late night drive when he thought his kids and wife were asleep. But his wife confronts him, saying: “It takes a mighty brave man to run over turtles.”

The father denies it at first, then claims he hits them because they are a roadway hazard. “It’s my only sport when I’m traveling. My only hobby.”