Residents come to 'Meet a Turtle' at Lacey-Keosauqua State Park

Iowa DNR biologist Chad Dolan holds a snapping turtle during the “Meet a Turtle” program Thursday at Lacey-Keosauqua State Park. (Andy Hallman/The Union)
Iowa DNR biologist Chad Dolan holds a snapping turtle during the “Meet a Turtle” program Thursday at Lacey-Keosauqua State Park. (Andy Hallman/The Union)

KEOSAUQUA – Iowa Department of Natural Resources biologist Chad Dolan invited residents to “Meet a Turtle” during a program Thursday at Lacey-Keosauqua State Park.

Dolan had several live turtles to show the two dozen onlookers who came to meet the creatures. Dolan talked about a number of local turtle species such as the painted turtle, the red eared slider turtle and snapping turtles. He told the audience gathered near the beach inside the park how to distinguish male and female turtles by their shape and the length of their nails.

He also talked about their life cycle, how the mothers lay eggs, and what they do to keep their young safe from predators.

Dolan said turtles with a dome-shaped shell are females because they need the space inside their shell for eggs. He asked the crowd if a turtle with long pretty nails was a male or female. Most members of the crowd shouted out “female,” but he said it’s actually a male. The males use their long nails as part of a courting dance to show off.

The DNR biologist said painted turtles got their name because they have a colorful and ornate under shell, which fades over time as they brush it against the ground. He spoke about why turtles like to bask on logs in the sun. It’s because they’re cold-blooded, which means they can’t regulate their own body temperature and have to rely on a nice sunbath to do that.

When turtles lay their eggs, they have to worry about predators such as raccoons, skunks and possums finding them. The eggs are most vulnerable right after they are laid because, even though the mother covers them with dirt, their scent is the strongest, and can be detected by the predators.

“In some years, predators might eat 100 percent of the turtle eggs,” Dolan said.

Even if they survive being found by predators, the little turtle hatchlings aren’t out of the woods yet. The mother laid them in loose soil, but now it’s time for them to return to the water, so they have to venture out on a journey.

Turtles have discovered ways of tricking their predators. The mother will sometimes create decoy nests, where she will deposit water just as if building a real nest. A predator will dig up the area expecting to find eggs. Dolan said that if the mother makes enough of these decoy nests, the predator will give up before finding the real one.

Dolan showed the crowd a snapping turtle. He said they’re not aggressive creatures and only bite in self-defense.

“Their primary food source is dead stuff,” he said. “That’s why they’re called the garbage men of the pond.”

Dolan said one of his colleagues received a nasty bite from a snapping turtle, and the way he was able to force its jaws open was to stick a finger down its throat, which prompted it to let go.

“Would a snapping turtle take your finger off? I don’t know, and I don’t want to find out,” Dolan told the crowd.

Thursday’s event was an official Des Moines River Water Trails event cosponsored by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and Jefferson County Conservation. The Des Moines River Water Trail is one of 19 official water trails in Iowa.