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.

THESE REFERENCES AND ORGANIZATIONS PROVIDE MUCH INFORMATION ABOUT ONTARIO’S TURTLES AND WHAT YOU CAN DO TO HELP THEM:

FIELD GUIDE

Familiar Amphibians and Reptiles of Ontario, by Bob Johnson, 1989

The ROM Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles of Ontario, by Ross McCulloch, 2002

Turtles of the United States and Canada, by Carl Ernst, Jeffrey E. Lovich and Roger W. Barbour, 1994

WEBSITES

Canadian Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Network: www.carcnet.ca

Turtle Tally: www.torontozoo.com/adoptapond/TurtleTally.asp

Turtle S.H.E.L.L.: www.turtleshelltortue.org

Kawartha Turtle Trauma Centre: www.kawarthaturtle.org

Kids for Turtles: rbowles@rogers.com

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.”

PAINTED TURTLE

(CHRYSEMYS PICTA)

Painted turtles are adaptable and can live wherever aquatic plants, insects, snails or tadpoles are abundant and some logs or rocks are available for basking. Though they are by far the most common turtles in the province and can live for more than 40 years, losses of painted turtle nests and young are high. Mortality on roads and habitat degradation have caused the disappearance of these turtles in many areas.

DSCRIPTION Olive, black or brown shell with pale yellow lines and red dabs on edge; dark grey skin with red and yellow streaks on head, neck and legs; yellow lower shell with dark centre blotch

SHELL LENGTH 10–25 cm

RANGE Southern Ontario to about Temagami and Wawa. Western painted turtle subspecies from around White River to Lake of the Woods and Red Lake

STATUS Secure provincially and nationally. Western painted turtle considered uncommon provincially

BLANDING’S TURTLE

(EMYDOIDEA BLANDING)

The high-domed Blanding’s turtle can live for more than seven decades – females do not even start breeding until they are between 20 and 25 years old. This species is usually the last turtle to fi nish nesting, in late June or early July, often moving far from water to fi nd soft sand beneath a log or sparse vegetation for their clutches of six to 11 eggs.

DESCRIPTION Black or dark brown shell with faint yellow or tan specks; dark brown or blue-grey head and legs; deep yellow throat and chin; yellow lower shell with black splotches

SHELL LENGTH 15–25 cm

RANGE Discontinuous populations scattered throughout southern Ontario to about North Bay, Sudbury and

Manitoulin Island

STATUS Threatened provincially and nationally

SPINY SOFTSHELL TURTLE

(APALONE SPINIFERUS)

Almost completely aquatic, spiny softshells probe beneath rocks, logs and roots for snails, crayfi sh and aquatic insect larvae or bury themselves in the silt and await their prey. The historic range of this species is the most limited of any Ontario turtle and, unfortunately, corresponds with the most heavily populated parts of the province. Softshell turtles have disappeared from most of the Ottawa Valley, around Lake Ontario and in the upper Thames River watershed.

DESCRIPTION Flat, grey-brown shell with black-bordered spots (faint on females); grey or brown skin, with a dark-edged light stripe on each side of the head; very long, narrow snout; webbed feet; yellow lower shell

SHELL LENGTH 17–45 cm

RANGE Far southern Ontario to about Hamilton and The Pinery Provincial Park; an isolated population near Pembroke

STATUS Threatened provincially and nationally