Tough, tenacious turtles

Spring time is a time of new life and new beginnings: trilliums bloom, maple buds burst and red fox kits playfully tussle. At this time adult turtles are also thinking of new life, as they search out mates, breed and lay eggs. Turtles are fascinating creatures: there is fossil evidence that turtles have been around for 200 million years, which means they existed alongside dinosaurs. And turtles survived whatever catastrophic event(s) that led to the extinction of 90% of plant and animal species, including dinosaurs1.

Eastern Snapping Turtle, gravid female (with eggs). Photo by Joana Marques, CVC
Eastern Snapping Turtle, gravid female (with eggs). Photo by Joana Marques, CVC

Turtles are tough and tenacious. But the last two hundred years has seen the human population grow exponentially and impact their way of life. We all know some of the changes they’ve faced: wetland draining and filling, hunting, removal from the wild, roads built through wetlands and other habitat, road mortality, intentional persecution (particularly of Eastern Snapping Turtles).

The effect of turtle road mortality in particular is compounded by the inherent biology of turtles. Turtles have a high egg and hatchling mortality rate with very few making it to adulthood. Also, turtles take years to reach sexual maturity, in some cases 15 years or more. So when adult turtles are hit by vehicles, the impact on the population is much more severe than it would be on species which have greater reproductive success (e.g. raccoons). Tenacious turtles are still with us today, but population threats have led to 7 of the 8 native Ontario turtle species being considered species at risk of extinction or of disappearing from the province.

A critical time of the year for turtles is approaching: nesting time. Nesting occurs between late May and July and results in turtles moving around to find breeding partners and nesting habitat. In doing so, they may walk across roads, especially roads near wetlands. They also may use the sandy or gravely edges of roads to nest. While turtles may cross roads from April to October, their movement is at its peak in early summer.

Yes, turtles are tough, but they could use some helping hands. They haven’t evolved to handle humans in automobiles and earth-moving equipment… or maybe it’s more accurate to say that humans haven’t evolved to handle turtles. But some advances are happening right here in our watershed. In 2009, along a stretch of Highway 10 south of Orangeville where wetlands exist on both sides of the road, the Ministry of Transportation installed fencing to keep turtles off Highway 10 and direct them through a culvert under the road.

As early summer approaches, and you watch new life unfold, think of the prehistoric reptiles around you, these creatures of an ancient lineage, learning to cope in a new world with asphalt roads, fences, culverts, and two-tonne vehicles driving 100km/h through their home range. Imagine a turtle on a road shoulder about to cross, its eyes only 3 or so inches off the ground – such a limited field of vision – and knowing it will take some time to get across. I’ve seen a turtle stand on the road shoulder, faced as if it was about to cross, with cars whipping by, and looking like it was trying to find the right moment and work up the courage to cross2. The adult females of at least two of our turtle species risk their lives on dangerous roads due to something called nest-fidelity: the desire to return to where they were born to lay their eggs in the same place. So, many of the turtles you encounter on roads will be females carrying eggs or that have just nested. Like parents of other species, they are willing to put their lives on the line for their young.

So consider lending a hand to the turtles this nesting season. Drive slowly and scan the road, especially around wetlands, and if it is safe to do so, help turtles across roads. Be careful with Eastern Snapping Turtles which can bite (The Toronto Zoo and Kawartha Turtle Trauma Centre have youtube videos available on how to move a turtle across a road). If you encounter an injured turtle, contact the Toronto Wildlife Centre which admits injured turtles for rehabilitation. Consider sending observations of live or dead turtles to an organisation such as the Toronto Zoo’s Adopt-a-pond which runs the Ontario Turtle Tally.


1Some scientists still consider our birds to be descendants of dinosaurs, although recent research suggests otherwise.
2I was able to get this turtle across, but it took me a few minutes to find the right moment, and I had a much better view (and a bright jacket).

by Leanne Wallis
Credit Valley Conservation