The scent of a turtle

Scientists turn to man`s best friend to help in recovery efforts for one of our most endangered reptiles.

Text and Photography by Conor Mihell


Charging along a frenetic course through a cedar swamp, Rebel looks like any youthful Labrador retriever exploring the outdoors. Nose to soggy ground, he zigzags haphazardly through tangled alders at a pace no human could match. Rebel’s handler, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) conservation officer Mike Buckner, seems exasperated by his dog’s hyperactivity. “He always wants to be at the front of the pack,” sighs Buckner, who has been training MNR “canine units” for 12 years and is currently serving as the acting supervisor of provincial canine services.

Branches slap my face, mud grabs at my feet and mosquitoes chase in my wake as I follow Rebel and Buckner, as well as MNR species-at-risk biologists Nathan Hanes and Jessica Sicoly, through the wetland. With great relief, we emerge onto a sandy beach on a river north of Sault Ste. Marie, where Hanes and Sicoly are conducting a field survey in search of wood turtles, a species listed as endangered under the provincial Endangered Species Act (ESA). (Due to the risk of wood turtle collection for the illegal pet trade, MNR does not disclose the precise locations of this turtle.) With his sharp nose and go-anywhere enthusiasm, two-year-old Rebel – who is trained to Ontario Provincial Police dog standards and capable of detecting a dozen different scents – is the team’s turtle-sniffing secret weapon.

Ontario is home to an estimated 1,100 wood turtles, or about 8 percent of the North American population, which ranges from Ontario to Nova Scotia, throughout the Great Lakes states and as far south as Virginia. Joe Crowley, a Peterborough-based MNR herpetology species-at-risk specialist, says the distribution and abundance of wood turtles on the Canadian Shield of central Ontario, at the northern and western edges of the species’ range in Ontario, “has probably remained relatively consistent with pre-settlement conditions.” However, habitat loss due to agriculture and development, road mortality and pressure from poachers have all but wiped out wood turtles from their historical southern Ontario range, and forestry and off-road vehicles are probably curtailing northern populations as well.

As I pause to catch my breath after completing the bushwhack, Rebel’s efficiency leaves me dumbfounded. In the time it takes five humans to merely spot the wispy marks left by a wood turtle in the sand, Rebel has found the source of the tracks – a dessert-plate-sized turtle with orange appendages, a tiger-tail-patterned underside and a gnarled, wood-like shell that camouflages it perfectly in a bramble of dogwood and ferns. Rebel perks up his ears, wags his tail rapidly and sits, proud of his find and quivering with excitement. As a reward, Buckner flips him a rubber ball, and Rebel lies down for a satisfying chew.

It’s late May, and in the next few weeks this female wood turtle (its gender identifiable by its flat lower shell, or plastron) will likely lay a clutch of up to 18 eggs on a beach like this one. She has probably just wandered away from the water to warm herself in the morning sun, Hanes tells us, as he records air and water temperature readings. Wood turtles spend more time on land than any other of Ontario’s eight species of turtle. Since turtles rely on their external environment to regulate their body temperature, in all likelihood this one spent the cool overnight hours in the relatively warm river water. The species also spends the winter months in rivers or streams under the ice. (Turtles, like frogs, snakes, lizards and salamanders are “ectotherms,” meaning that their surroundings control their body temperature.)

Wood turtles don’t mature until well into their teens and have a very low reproductive success rate due to flooding of nest sites, parasites, infertility, and predation by raccoons, foxes and skunks, which eat turtle eggs. “A female may only produce a couple of offspring over the course of her life that survive to adulthood,” explains Crowley, who previously coordinated the Ontario Reptile and Amphibian Atlas project for Ontario Nature. But since adult wood turtles have few natural predators, they can live upwards of 50 years – enough time to maintain stable populations. This is why the species has persisted since the dinosaur age. But now its continued survival is threatened – by us.

How you can help turtles
The fact that the Ontario Reptile and Amphibian Atlas has added more than 160,000 records, many provided by the public, to provincial natural heritage databases in just two years demonstrates volunteers’ ability to play a key role in conservation.
Ontario Nature staff ecologist John Urquhart says the biggest contribution the public can make is to document and report sightings of species such as turtles, salamanders and frogs. Under Ontario’s Endangered Species Act, simple observations identifying species and their location (preferably including photos and a site description) “automatically create the potential to protect their habitat,” says Urquhart.

Rural property owners can go further by being good stewards of their land. Maintaining buffers around watercourses protects water quality and preserves important transitional habitat, making it a valuable ecological practice for conserving populations of reptiles, amphibians and other species of wildlife.

For more information, visit these websites:

Ontario’s Reptile and Amphibian Atlas:
Ontario Turtle Tally:
Conservation Ontario:
Ontario’s Species at Risk Program:

Conor Mihell

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