December 28, 2012

Turtle study reveals 'dark side'

The Associated Press

CLEMSON, S.C. - Clemson University student Nathan Weaver set out to determine how to help turtles cross the road. He ended up getting a glimpse into the dark souls of some humans.

click image to enlarge

Clemson University student Nathan Weaver, right, talks with his professor, Rob Baldwin, left, as they monitor the fake turtle Weaver placed on a Clemson, S.C., road. Weaver is tracking how many drivers intentionally run over the turtle.

Weaver put a realistic rubber turtle in the middle of a lane on a busy road near campus. Then he got out of the way and watched over the next hour as seven drivers swerved and deliberately ran over the animal. Several more apparently tried to hit it but missed.

"I've heard of people and from friends who knew people that ran over turtles. But to see it out here like this was a bit shocking," said Weaver, a 22-year-old senior in Clemson's School of Agricultural, Forest and Environmental Sciences.

To seasoned researchers, the practice wasn't surprising.

The number of box turtles is in slow decline, and one big reason is that many wind up as roadkill while crossing the asphalt, a slow-and-steady trip that can take several minutes.

Sometimes humans feel a need to prove they are the dominant species on this planet by taking a two-ton metal vehicle and squishing a defenseless creature under the tires, said Hal Herzog, a Western Carolina University psychology professor.

"They aren't thinking, really. It is not something people think about. It just seems fun at the time," Herzog said. "It is the dark side of human nature."

Herzog asked a class of about 110 students getting ready to take a final whether they had intentionally run over a turtle, or been in a car with someone who did. Thirty-four students raised their hands, about two-thirds of them male, said Herzog, author of a book about humans' relationships with animals, called "Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat."

Weaver, who became interested in animals and conservation through the Boy Scouts and TV's "Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin, wants to figure out the best way to get turtles safely across the road and keep the population from dwindling further.

Among the possible solutions: turtle underpasses or an education campaign aimed at teenagers on why drivers shouldn't mow turtles down.

A female turtle that lives 50 years might lay over 100 eggs, but just two or three are likely to survive to reproduce, said Weaver's professor, Rob Baldwin.

"They seem so helpless and cute," he said. "I want to stop and help them. My kids want to stop and help them. My wife will stop and help turtles no matter how much traffic there is on the road. I can't understand the idea why you would swerve to hit something so helpless as a turtle."

 

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