Cool Turtles

     Any day now millions of turtles will wake up feeling like hell: muscles clogged with lactic acid, shells dissolving from the inside – waking up from another year of hibernation.
     I love turtles: their gemlike shells, their ancient toothless faces, their peculiar grace and fearless placidity.
     I rescue them from roads and toss them back into their ponds on my bicycle rides through Vermont.
     I liked even the snapping turtle I booted off the highway, though he was the nastiest little bastard I’ve ever seen: big around as a pizza pan, hissing and snapping and pissing.
     How do turtles live through winter under the ice?
     How can an air-breathing animal do that?
     I learned how in “Turtles of the United States and Canada – Second Edition, Revised and Updated with new Species Names.” (!!!!)
     If you don’t care how turtles hibernate, check out this page’s stories about Hollywood celebrities. (!!!)
     Turtles are amazing. Every winter, hibernating turtles turn their blood into a supercooled liquid.
     A supercooled liquid has properties of liquids and solids. It looks like a solid, but its molecules are not locked into a lattice; they swim about.
     Glass is a supercooled liquid. That’s why it shatters irregularly instead of breaking.
     Crystals – quartz, for instance – will break if you whack them hard enough. When quartz breaks, it breaks along crystal lines. It shatters into six-sided ends. But you never know how shattered glass will break.
     And that, strangely enough, is how turtles can hibernate under the ice. Their supercooled blood can sink below 32 degrees without freezing.
     But if a crystal forms, the turtles are goners.
     How do we know this? Because the turtle people – and believe me, there are a lot of them – have done experiments.
     Touch ice to a hibernating turtle’s shell and it might form a crystal that will kill the turtle. But deep under the pond, when it’s 30 below zero in the air, the lowest layer of water and mud may not freeze. So no crystals form in the hibernating turtles’ blood.
     Here’s another strange thing. The first thing turtles do when they’re born is to eat dirt. No one knows why. Perhaps it’s to inoculate themselves with the local bacteria. Eventually, they excrete or vomit up the dirt.
     But if a turtle is born late in the year and winter comes before it can eliminate the dirt, the dirt can form a seed for a crystal, and the baby turtle’s blood crystallizes, and it dies.
     But wait, there’s more. As a turtle snoozes under the ice, or under the soil, looking for all the world like it’s dead, lactic acid builds up in its blood.
     Lactic acid is what makes your muscles scream when you run too far or too fast. It crystallizes in your muscles and makes you sore the day after a tough workout, until your blood dissolves it and washes it away.
     Lactic acid in hibernating turtles’ blood rises to extreme levels: more than 10 times normal. Turtles can stand it because their calcium shells buffer the chemical reaction by slowly dissolving into their blood.
     When turtles wake up every spring, their lactic acid levels are so high it would make a Kenyan marathoner puke. Their shells are dissolving. They must hurt like hell.
     The turtles float to the surface of the pond, or crawl out of their hole, and look for a warm, sunny place to sit.
     Any day now I will see turtles sitting on a big old dead tree in Weatherhead Hollow Pond. Each turtle except one will have its chin on another turtle’s back. When my shadow passes across them, eight out of ten turtles will jump fastastheycan into the pond.
     One or two turtles, who survive this world through other strategies, will stay on the old snag, looking around, wondering what just happened.
     I call these guys the cool alternative turtles.
     If I am reincarnated as a turtle, I believe I will be a cool alternative turtle. Looking around, wondering what just happened.

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