When it first opened up back in 2009, the 60-foot long “Turtle Tunnel” under the Route 7 bypass in Brookfield was derided as a million-dollar joke.
People laughed over the idea of attaching tiny GPS tracking devices to the shells of the slow-moving creatures that gave the tunnel its alliterative nickname. They giggled that the tunnel might also help safeguard roaming “hog nosed snakes” and “slimy salamanders.” Many shook their heads in dismay that gobs of taxpayer money was spewed out to protect a few ugly reptiles from becoming road kill.
“The concept of [the tunnel] certainly has been a source of entertainment for folks,” says Jenny Dickson, a state wildlife biologist.
Except there was and still is a lot more going on with that wildlife corridor and other efforts to save some of Connecticut’s native species.
“A lot of people missed the point of the whole thing,” Dennis Quinn says of that effort to monitor the migrations of eastern box turtles in Brookfield.
Quinn is a herpetologist (aka reptile expert) from Southington who worked on that turtle study and other state research programs. Like the one where radio telemetry was surgically implanted in eastern timber rattlesnakes, or another involving the farm-puddle sex orgies of rarely seen spadefoot toads.
Dickson, a biologist with the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection for 26 years, says these sorts of odd-sounding projects are often federally funded and turn out to be critical to understanding what’s going on with specific species.
Most people don’t realize that lots of native Connecticut creatures like turtles and snakes need to migrate, even if it’s only relatively short distances of under a mile, to find the right sort of habitat for breeding, egg laying, foraging and hibernating, Dickson says.
“That’s one of the challenges we face,” she adds, saying people often think that wherever they happen to see a reptile is where that animal stays all the time.
The study of those eastern box turtles, for instance, was a six-year-long effort (that went on before and after the Brookfield tunnel was built) to track how they were moving around their territory.
Quinn explains that box turtles need to move from the woodlands where they spend much of their year (including winter hibernation), to grasslands for egg laying and wetland areas.
Short-term studies aren’t much good since box turtles can live 75 years or longer. “There is no breeding season,” says Quinn. Females can “retain a male’s sperm for up to 3-5 years” and will only lay eggs if they can reach suitable meadow grounds.
Since it’s generally the females that are moving most, looking for those egg-nest spots, they’re the ones that most often get smashed trying to cross roadways. Hence the idea of an animal underpass to avoid the traffic on that Route 7 bypass, which cut right through a box turtle habitat.
No one knows how many box turtles are left in our densely populated state, but state experts have listed them as a species of “special concern,” Quinn says. “Their numbers are declining.”
In some formerly populous box turtle havens, according to Quinn, there are mostly older males because so many female turtles are becoming road kill.
“The tunnel probably didn’t work as well as we’d hoped for box turtles,” Quinn admits, but he says it has become a corridor for all sorts of other wild creatures. Motion-sensor cameras installed by a state Department of Transportation contractor regularly record bobcats, deer, raccoons, and other animals using the tunnel to avoid dodging Route 7 cars and trucks.
According to DOT officials, the six years of studies surrounding the box turtles and that wildlife tunnel corridor cost $730,400. They also point out that these kinds of efforts to preserve the environment when building new roads are now mandated by state and federal law, and that the days of ramming highways through regardless of how that might damage wildlife are long gone.
Quinn also worked on that timber rattlesnake study where transmitters were implanted inside seven of the potentially dangerous reptiles. He says the intent was to “determine how they used their landscape” to figure out the best way of protecting them.
These eastern timber rattlers are endangered to such an extent that neither Quinn nor state wildlife officials care to discuss exactly where they are most common or where that study was conducted. “We tend to be tight-lipped about that,” says Dickson.
One reason is the poachers. Odd as it may sound, our timber rattlesnakes have become desired (and thus valuable) items on the exotic-pet black market. “Some people love to keep a dangerous animal in their house,” says Quinn. And Connecticut rattlers are definitely “exotic somewhere,” he adds.
Another worrisome factor is that rattlesnakes, just like those turtles, do migrate and that often means crossing roadways or developed areas where they are in a lot more danger than any person they might encounter.
Now restricted to a few small areas in the central and northwestern part of Connecticut, timber rattler males can “travel quite long distances from their wintering dens,” Quinn says. While lots of people run from a rattler, others immediately try to kill them or run them over on the road.
Dickson says one key for that study was trying to figure out “how you can manage around [the rattlesnakes’] movement patterns.” That could include preventing a road from dividing up needed habitats, or preventing housing developments from destroying a critical portion of their environment.
According to Quinn, the results of the rattlesnake study also helped state officials decide what properties they wanted to buy for open-space preservation.
The eastern spadefoot toad issue is a bit different. There is only one location in the state (somewhere east of the Connecticut River) where this unusual creature is known to exist, says Quinn.
The little buggers spend most of their time underground, usually emerging only at night and becoming really active only in rainy conditions.
Originally a desert-evolved creature, the spadefoot is a “flash breeder,” explains Quinn. That means they come out at night after a rainstorm creates some big puddles or pools in farm fields, get all together in a big sex-crazed bunch, and do their baby-making thing. The females lay eggs, the tadpoles hatch within a couple of days, and two weeks later you’ve got another generation of tiny spadefeet hopping around and burrowing into their preferred sandy soil.
Like so many of Connecticut’s small, lesser-known creatures, you could live right next door to our one-and-only community of spadefeet, says Quinn, “and absolutely never know.” Dickson says it’s remarkable how few people in Connecticut even notice the wildlife that’s all around them.
Except maybe for those times when they run over some poor creature that’s simply trying to get to the other side of the road.