by Tim Tiner
In the mid-1990s, Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) biologist Tim Haxton made a disturbing discovery while doing a survey of snapping turtles in the Haliburton area. Nearly one-third of the 279 turtle sightings he tallied were roadkills. He also encountered hostility toward the ponderous reptile. “It is a big issue up there. A lot of people like to swerve off the road and run them over,” recalls Haxton.
While turtles may not account for a large proportion of animal fatalities on Ontario’s roads, their biology is such that these mortality rates have a huge impact on a population’s long-term survival. Already six of Ontario’s eight hard-shelled turtle species are designated as at risk and rarely seen by most residents. No other single order of animals in the province, and probably in the world, is so imperilled. After 250 million years of soldiering through mass extinctions that felled, among many other species, the dinosaurs, turtles are now facing a similar fate.
Most Ontario turtles range little beyond the southern edge of the Canadian Shield, making their home in the most intensely developed region in Canada where only some 30 percent of the original wetlands remains. Agricultural pesticides and industrial pollutants contaminate what’s left of viable, albeit fragmented, turtle habitat. Body counts along the 3.6-kilometre causeway at the base of Long Point, on Lake Erie, have turned up 160 to 200 squashed turtles annually, including threatened and endangered species.
Turtles cannot spring back from heavy losses. The annual rate of reproductive success for these animals is extremely low, as a long list of predators raid nests and prey on hatchlings.
On the other hand, a turtle’s lifespan is long. Studies suggest that snapping turtles can live for more than a century. Many Ontario turtles first lay eggs when in their teens, and continue breeding for the rest of their lengthy lives, evening the odds that eventually some offspring will survive. Conversely, an additional annual loss of even 1 percent to 2 percent of adult females can have catastrophic consequences for the whole population.
“Turtles seem like they’ll last forever,” says Bob Johnson, curator of reptiles and amphibians at the Toronto Zoo. “But [the dynamics] are in place that could see this blip of extinction, which could have been addressed if we saw what was happening.”
Johnson is part of a team of leading turtle biologists who have drafted the Ontario Multi-Species Turtles at Risk Recovery Strategy that is being used to guide funding for ongoing research – as well as nest habitat creation and protection – by conservation authorities, universities, parks staff and the Toronto Zoo.
Moreover, a groundswell of support activity has focused on turtles in recent years. Turtle S.H.E.L.L. (Safety Habitat
Education Long Life) has posted more than 350 turtle crossing signs since 2000 along roads that traverse wetlands and nesting sites and runs a turtle rehabilitation centre.
Last year, children involved with Kids for Turtles made deputations to municipal councils to gain approval for a dozen turtle crossing signs in Simcoe County. For group founder Bob Bowles, the signs signify heightened awareness of the plight of turtles and what it means for the environment.
“With turtles not being able to adapt to the changes [humans have] made, it’s them, along with other reptiles and salamanders, that are going to be the first to go,” says Bowles, an environmental consultant and well-known naturalist. “But if we don’t change, we’ll be the ones who suffer in the long run.”