Turtles in Ontario

Painted turtle at the OTTC. Photo: Amanda Newell Chambers

The Link, Spring 2018
| by Amanda Newell Chambers |

Once upon a time, my sister had a turtle. It bit, and you couldn’t go near it without having to wash your hands afterwards. It was a Red-eared slider, native to the southern States and northern Mexico. This species can live for 40 years and grow to be a foot long.

Ours was about half that size when it ran away by escaping its summer home, a kiddie pool in the backyard. The board we used for shade got knocked in, creating a perfect get-away ramp. Fortunately, we found the poor guy’s dried-up shell across a field years later, which means it didn’t wreak havoc on any local wetlands. Red-eared sliders can survive (and even breed) in the wild and our native turtles have enough trouble thriving without the stress of competing with invasive species.

Turtles make lousy pets in my opinion, but they are fascinating. All over the world, we see them in mythology. In local Anishinaabe culture the turtle plays a key role in the story of creation and this land is known as Turtle Island. Without the turtle there would be no home for people or other life.

“Habitat loss and climate change are real threats…”

Snapping turtle hatchlings at the OTTC. Photo: Amanda Newell Chambers

We are lucky to have Canada’s greatest diversity of these shelled friends here in southern Ontario. Eight species can be found in our lakes, rivers, ponds and wetlands. Only the Painted Turtle is thought to be relatively common and not considered a Species at Risk (although it is under review). The other seven are listed as Endangered, Threatened or Special Concern by the Committee on the Status of Species at Risk in Ontario. Among predation, outright habitat destruction, road mortality and climate change, life is hard as a turtle.

Turtles adjust to local climates and require specific water temperatures for precise lengths of time for healthy hibernation. They like to find a space that works and hibernate there from year to year. Habitat loss and climate change are real threats to this process.

Turtles ‘breathe’ through their skin and have extremely slow metabolisms through hibernation. Their heartbeats can reduce to as few as one beat every 10 minutes and they build up lactic acid over the season. This makes them very sluggish when they start poking around in March and April, reappearing around local water holes. Soon, breeding season starts. They are mostly observed through June when males are on the move and females are nesting. (Fun fact: for all our Ontario species the temperature at which eggs are incubated determines sex! Warmer temperatures equal more females and cooler weather results in more males.)

This is the time to be extra careful when driving, folks. Loose sand and gravel on the roadside are attractive to nesting females and both males and females can frequently be found crossing pavement. In 2017, over 900 turtles were brought to the Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre (OTCC) in Peterborough and about 90 percent of these were hurt on roads. Take turtle-crossing signs seriously – by slowing down just a little from late spring to early autumn you can avoid run-ins and help keep numbers up. Every individual can help maintain local biodiversity and that’s what it’s all about as we work to live more sustainably!

Northern Map turtle at the OTTC. Photo: Amanda Newell Chambers

The OTCC, a non-profit organization and home of the Kawartha Turtle Trauma Centre, does incredibly valuable work through rehabilitation, reintroduction and education. They treat hurt turtles, incubate eggs, raise hatchlings and even carry out field studies that lead to a greater understanding of local turtle ecology. I visited the Centre with my family recently and was really impressed with the experience. It was an interesting and affordable way to see turtles up close and personal, and to learn about what’s happening with them in our own backyards.

Along the shores of Rice Lake, Alderville First Nation has built a nesting habitat and will carry out invasive species monitoring and mitigation through their Black Oak Savanna conservation branch. Turtle habitat at the Northumberland Land Trust’s Jack van Nostrand Nature Reserve has recently been boosted through the installation of basking logs. The ‘Think Turtle’ Conservation Initiative is bringing new awareness to residents and cottagers in North Hastings County this spring through presentations, information sessions and even a turtle festival.

I’d be remiss not to mention all the unsung stewards quietly going the extra mile on their own time. From building and installing nest protectors that shield eggs from predators to donating wetland property to land trusts, people are making a difference.

Like I tell my four-year-old: be a helper. Give our reptile friends the respect they deserve by simply going a little more slowly when driving through their habitat this spring. If given the opportunity, see how good it feels to help even more by learning how to safely assist turtles off the road or deliver injured ones to the trauma centre. Let’s all be part of the solution!

Based in Peterborough, Amanda works on diverse organic growing, urban greening and land stewardship projects throughout Southern Ontario.