GERING, Neb. — Forget about why the chicken crossed the road. How did the turtle get up the road?
The discovery in Scotts Bluff County of a species of turtle whose western range was thought to be limited to the Nebraska Sand Hills has the state’s turtle world a bit abuzz.
Dr. Dennis Ferraro, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln specialist in the world’s amphibians, turtles and reptiles, plans to travel to Gering sometime next week to take samples of the turtle’s toenails for testing to determine the region where it has been living during the last year or two.
The clippings will be analyzed for their stable hydrogen and oxygen isotopes, which will help Ferraro match the turtle to bodies of water where it had been living and feeding. Rainwater has different chemical characteristics across Nebraska.
“This will help us learn if the turtle was transported to Scotts Bluff County or slowly moved away and has been living there,’’ Ferraro said.
Blanding’s turtles are found in Keith County, at least 100 miles down the North Platte River from where it was found in Scotts Bluff County. It would be the first of its species known to exist in the state’s Panhandle, Ferraro said.
“It’s three counties west of where it’s been found before,’’ he said.
The mature Blanding’s turtle was found by Patrick Closson of Gering and his son Max, 17, alongside Nebraska Highway 26 between Scottsbluff and Mitchell last week. The area is near irrigation canals and the North Platte River.
The Clossons stopped and picked up the turtle to prevent it from becoming roadkill and took it home.
Mary Ann Closson, who is accustomed to her husband and sons showing up with critters they find on fishing trips or other outings — she once hosted a large snapping turtle in the bottom of a 55-gallon barrel — said she had never seen a turtle like the hitchhiker that appeared at her door.
The turtle’s shell is a high dome surrounded by yellow spots.
“This turtle isn’t from here,’’ Closson said.
She took to the Internet and identified her guest as a Blanding’s turtle, and she learned that it is considered endangered throughout much of its range east and west of the Great Lakes and in Canada. It is common to abundant in the Sand Hills but still listed as a Tier 1 species, meaning it has the highest state protection.
Closson contacted Amanda Filipi, an outdoor education specialist at the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission’s Wildcat Hills Nature Center south of Gering. Filipi took in the turtle Monday and contacted her former mentor, Ferraro.
Filipi said the turtle appears to be always smiling. She introduced the turtle to Nebraska Game and Parks commissioners meeting in Gering and at the nature center this week.
Ferraro said it would be a big deal if studies show that the species’ range is moving west.
“If it’s just one that wanders, it doesn’t tell us much,’’ he said.
Ferraro said if the laboratory analysis indicates the turtle has been in Scotts Bluff County for a long time, researchers would scour the county’s wetlands for others.
“If we can find out where it’s from, we’ll get it back there,’’ he said.
Otherwise, the turtle could become an animal ambassador at the Wildcat Hills Nature Center.
Ferraro said it’s a “too common’’ occurrence to hear reports of people picking up a turtle from Nebraska Highway 2 in the Sand Hills and taking it home to their yard somewhere far away, only to have it wander off to be “discovered’’ by someone who contacts him.
“If that’s what happened here, it’s not a big deal,’’ he said. “It’s a mystery.’’