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A Wilder View: A look at turtle migration

Posted at 11:10 AM, May 26, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-01 15:49:47-04

MISSOULA — We take a look at how turtles find water sources in this edition of A Wilder View.

One of the most remarkable acts of migration occurs with sea turtles as females travel hundreds of miles to nest on the very beach where they were born.

Although not nearly as extreme, turtle migrations are occurring right in our backyard. The painted turtle -- which has an olive to black shell with yellow edges -- is a native species of Montana.

Based on changing seasons these turtles can move from various water sources like going from pond to pond or lake to pond.

Their reasons for migrating are usually seasonally based like their current pond drying up.

A publication in the Journal of Animal Behavior addresses the possible role of behavioral plasticity in a painted turtle’s navigation.

Behavioral plasticity is a really fancy way of saying an animal changes its behavior by learning. This is usually caused by environmental changes.

The research found that painted turtles navigate using the same precise routes learned when they are young.

They learn their routes until becoming four years old. Think of these first four years as their education period, learning the landscapes and finding their perfect route to the next water source.

Once they become adults the same exact path is consistently used to travel between ponds or lakes.

As adults, they can’t use the high precision they had when they were younger to find new ways to navigate.

While out of the water and looking for new water sources turtles are exposed to risks of hyperthermia, predation, and having their skin dry up.

By going through this learning period and eventually being able to quickly navigate to their next water source minimizes these risks.

The painted turtle is the only native turtle species in Western Montana.