When visiting Turtle Guardians, a non-profit in Haliburton, Ont., visitors can watch young terrapins hatch from rescued eggs or learn to properly pick them up to move them out of harm’s way. These days, however, visitors are asking to see the remains of Grace, a beloved local snapping turtle estimated to have been over 125 years old.
“Her bones are in my house,” says Leora Berman, founder of Turtle Guardians. “They are heavy.” Grace had an unusually domed shell and an unmistakable skull—likely due to a birth defect, the left eye socket is much bigger than the right.
But beyond her physical remains, Grace had become a cottage country icon. Often seen slowly trundling through the streets of Haliburton with her misshapen shell and missing eye, Grace was a symbol of resilience in the face of adversity. “It was the fact that she had one eye, she was very old, and she lived downtown—I named her Grace. Because it was by God’s grace that she could survive all those years,” says Berman. Furthermore, the circumstances of her mysterious death are emblematic of human folly trodding over the wellbeing of wildlife.
Berman first learned of Grace in 2018, when the turtle blocked a school bus from pulling out of a parking lot. At 40 centimetres long and nearly 12 kilograms, Jeff Hathaway, a herpetologist at Scales Nature Park, thinks she was the largest, and likely the oldest, female turtle on record in the Ontario Highlands. Berman has monitored Grace’s size and movement over the past five years and posted about her on social media where the turtle soon became a social media sensation. “People who grew up here, who’ve been here for generations, remember seeing her when they were children,” says Berman, adding that one family she knows have seen her at their cottage for over 40 years.
But while Grace was becoming a social media star, her wetland was in trouble. For the past few years, Grace’s hibernation site was gradually being filled in by a private landowner. Because endangered turtles nest in that area, the site should have been protected, but Berman says the municipality of Haliburton lacks the local bylaws that would regulate the landowner’s usage of the wetland. Upon learning this, Berman started a petition urging governments to protect turtle habitat, which currently has over 127,000 signatures. “We’re calling on governments from municipal to provincial to do what is reasonable, wise, and kind,” she says.
Grace’s last confirmed sighting was in the summer of 2021. In the spring of the following year, Berman received an image of Grace from an anonymous Facebook message that didn’t reveal the location, and in July of that year, Berman received a call reporting a one-eyed snapping turtle 15 kilometres from Grace’s home range. The maximum distance snapping turtles have been known to migrate is eight kilometres, and because of the unbelievable distance, Berman dismissed the report.
Grace’s bones were found over Canada Day weekend this year by paddleboarders Karol Chorostecki and Stephanie Guiler who noticed an upturned shell in the water. Curious, the pair retrieved the shell and noticed several other bones nearby. Upon finding the skull, Guiler suspected they had stumbled upon the celebrity skeleton and brought the remains to Berman.
Given the lengthy distance between Grace’s bones and her hibernation site, Berman believes Grace had to have been relocated. “Turtles imprint spatial memories of their territories,” explains Berman. “They repeat their patterns every year, and they’re very attached to their home territories, especially their hibernation sites because they’re so critical to their survival.” With such a dramatic move, it’s likely that Grace was unable to find a suitable hibernation site and succumbed to illness, stress, or starvation. Hathaway agrees, saying that even if Grace’s wetland was being filled in, it’s unlikely she would have traveled so far.
“The adults live practically forever, they don’t die of old age very easily,” says Hathaway. “They rarely get eaten by predators, and they should be living for a very, very long time.” The upper limit of a snapping turtle’s age is unknown, but models that base age on shell size estimate that some turtles in Algonquin could be anywhere from 250 years old (on average) to outliers that are 400 years old.
While snapping turtles aren’t considered endangered, Hathaway says their populations are on the decline. The terrapins don’t reach sexual maturity until they’re about 50 to 60 years old, he says, and only about one in 1,400 turtle eggs survive to replace themselves in the population. A central threat to their survival, Hathaway says, is road mortality. He advises turtles to be moved out of immediate harm’s way, and not to relocate them to another body of water.
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The other central threat, Hathway says, is land development. “Historically speaking, we’ve destroyed 75 per cent of the wetland south of the Canadian Shield,” he says. And much like in Grace’s case, Ontario governments are often weak in enforcing protections for turtle habitat.
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The mysterious circumstances of Grace’s death leave room for speculation. It’s possible that she began moving on her own and someone picked her up, or that knowing her lake was being filled in, someone took it upon themselves to relocate her. Some theorize that Grace was hit by a car and taken to Koshlong Lake. Berman doesn’t care to speculate on who relocated Grace or why, but would rather focus on Grace’s legacy.
“Grace was gorgeous,” she says. “They’re [turtles] probably the most innocent, peaceful, and patient of animals. And they’re eco heroes, they basically are the best gardeners and janitors for our lakes and wetlands.” Ecologically, turtles are ecosystem engineers, transferring seeds across territories, cleaning detritus from lakes, and bettering habitats for fish and other wildlife.
Deborah Reed, a retired schoolteacher, became enamored with Grace’s story. “I got all wrapped up in the concept of her and was just mortified when she died,” she says. Reed related to the fact that her grandmother, whom she’d never known, was named Grace, and she drew inspiration from the turtle’s resilience over more than a century. The terrapin became the inspiration behind much of Reed’s paintings and poetry.
Berman is planning a memorial walk for Grace on September 30 in Haliburton. She hopes Grace’s story will inspire others to find a balance between land development and wildlife protection “rather than just paving paradise for some pocket change.”
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