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Friday, June 21, 2024
Keeping it Green: Going slow and steady keeps nesting turtles safe on roads
Helping an endangered Blanding’s turtle safely cross the highway. KYRA SIMONE
Northern map turtles hatched after successful incubation of rescued eggs. KYRA SIMONE

 

Turtles in Niagara are braving roads in search of sites to lay eggs. Thoughtful driving and small acts of compassion make a monumental difference in protecting turtle populations.

Southern Ontario has the highest turtle diversity in all of Canada, with our province’s wetlands supporting eight unique species. Recent Niagara sightings include snapping, midland painted, northern map and globally endangered Blanding’s turtles. 

These dinosaur cousins are essential ecosystem engineers, removing bacteria from water and cycling nutrients through the food web by grazing on plants and scavenging carcasses.

Some plants rely on turtles to disperse seeds after digesting their fruit.

Sadly, all eight native Ontario turtle species are federally listed as species-at-risk. Habitat loss and fragmentation, thanks in part to legislation like Bill 23, which strips crucial wetland ecosystems of protections, have caused sharp population declines. 

Road mortality is another key threat to turtles, where these slow and thoughtful creatures meet automobile drivers in a hurry.

At this time of year, many turtles are out exploring in Niagara. Between May and mid-July, females leave the safety of wetlands and travel more than six kilometres in search of nest habitat.

Females are particular about nest sites: They prefer to select well-draining soil, without much shading by vegetation. Their eggs require a narrow range of moisture and temperature conditions to develop.

For many turtle species, incubation temperatures affect the sex ratio of hatchlings. For example, a painted turtle nest that experiences warm conditions will produce a greater number of female turtles.

Some turtles, like Blanding’s turtles, display site fidelity and return to the same nesting sites year-after-year.

“If you have turtles nesting on your property, you can play an important role in protecting eggs. After the turtle finishes nesting, you can install a nest protector — you can purchase these or build your own, if you’re handy,” says Dr. Chantel Markle, assistant professor and turtle conservation biologist at the University of Waterloo.

CROSSING GUARDS NEEDED

Tragically, turtle road mortality spikes during nesting season in Niagara. Harming turtles can yield fines up to $100,000 and jail time due to their protected status under federal legislation.

Because females take up to 25 years to reach maturity and lay eggs, the loss of one adult female can be devastating. Less than one per cent of turtle eggs and hatchlings survive to adulthood.

“Adult turtles are incredibly important to the population. If even a few are killed on the road each year, this has long-lasting consequences,” says Markle.

During the vulnerable nesting season, these brave mamas need all the help they can get to cross safely. Drivers who come across a turtle should move it in the direction it was going, if safe to do so.

For extra visibility, I wear my orange safety vest from field research. Large turtles like snappers can be moved by holding the shell on either side of the tail and dragging or “wheelbarrow-walking,” while smaller turtles can be held like a hamburger.

Turtles should never be picked up by the tail. After touching a turtle, use hand sanitizer to kill any bacteria.

Injured turtles can be treated at the Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre, Ontario’s only turtle trauma centre. Good Samaritans should gently place the injured turtle in a plastic container with a secure, ventilated lid, without water and immediately call 705-741-5000.

The OTCC will require information about the specific location where the turtle was found. Their volunteer and veterinarian network will transport it to a care facility and treat any injuries.

“Turtles can survive a tremendous amount of trauma. Even if it doesn’t look good, it’s best to call the OTCC. Every turtle counts,” Markle says.

Turtles can survive extreme blood loss and injuries that would require euthanasia in other species. Even if the mother doesn’t survive, it may be possible for the conservation centre to rescue and incubate her eggs.

Each of these resilient beings has the potential to outlive us, with some turtles living longer than 100 years. So sticking our neck out for these gentle reptiles is the least we can do — and preserving their critical wetland habitat would also be wise.

Kyra Simone is a PhD student in environmental science, with master’s degrees in biology and science communication. Her doctoral research focuses on climate change-induced wildfire and turtle nesting habitat in eastern Georgian Bay.

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