In late August, the Kawartha Lakes engineering division discovered a nest of turtle eggs during a road reconstruction project in Dalrymple, Ont. Staff members carefully placed the eggs in a box, removing them from harm’s way, and transferring them to the turtle hospital at the Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre (OTCC) in Peterborough, Ont.
After being monitored and incubated at the centre for the remainder of the gestation period, the eggs hatched into healthy baby snapping turtles—one of Ontario’s eight turtle species; all of which are endangered. Last week, the hatchlings were returned to their original nesting site on Avery Point Road by Kawartha Lake employees.
The reason this is such a big deal, says Sue Carstairs, a veterinarian, and the executive and medical director of the OTCC, is that “it takes about 59 years for a snapping turtle to live long enough to even have a chance of replacing itself in the population.” Ontario’s turtles have a one per cent chance of making it to breeding age.
To successfully replace their population, the turtles must have close to a zero adult mortality rate or their population will continue to decline. But they face a number of risks. “Probably the number one threat, as it is globally, is habitat loss,” Carstairs says. “Habitat loss along with habitat fragmentation with roads dividing up their range.”
Habitat loss is followed closely by road and boat mortalities, fishing bycatch, and, what Carstairs calls, “subsidized predation”—an environment that’s more conducive to predators, like raccoons, that eat turtle eggs. Carstairs explains that turtles are an essential part of the food chain, but “if their breeding isn’t secure,” their population will continue to disappear.
In an effort to foster the populations of Ontario’s turtles, the OTCC has instigated a hatchling program. “We collect the eggs from any turtle that’s admitted to our hospital,” Carstairs says. Currently, the centre is fostering 6,000 hatchlings. “We track every single egg and then we know who the mother is, and we release the babies so that they’re back in the mother’s wetland,” she says. “That way, we help to replenish the population.”
Along with the hatchling program, the centre has an extensive education program that promotes awareness around risks to endangered turtles. Part of this is motivating constituents to approach their local councilors about ecopassages. “More and more ecopassages are being implemented,” Carstairs says. “With turtles, that means providing a way to pass under the road safely.” Typically, this involves screened fences that channel turtles into culverts.
If you do see a turtle on the road, Carstairs says you should “slow down and drive with care. They can often look like rocks in the road or potholes.” They are likely to appear in areas where there is a wetland on one side.
And if the turtle looks injured, Carstairs says it’s imperative to call the OTCC immediately at 705-741-5000. “That can be from anywhere in Ontario because we have a network across the province of veterinarians that help us to get turtles immediate care.”