Motorists need to slow down and watch out for these increasingly rare travelers.
I have always had a special fondness for turtles. As a child, I loved nothing more than catching, feeding and then releasing these ancient reptiles. They were no less than my gateway drug to a lifelong love of nature. But when June rolls around each year, I shudder at the likelihood of seeing a dead or injured turtle lying on the pavement. Sadly, the annual road carnage is already underway. As of Tuesday, the Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre (OTCC) on Chemong Road had already admitted 300 turtles to their hospital, which is higher than the same date last year. If there is a positive side to this, it shows that the centre’s outreach is working, and more people are bringing turtles in.
Peterborough County is home to six species of turtles, five or which have been classified by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forests as at risk. Of these only three, the Painted, Snapping, and Blanding’s Turtles, are commonly seen. The situation for endangered Spotted Turtles is so critical that they now face imminent disappearance from the province. Blanding’s and Eastern Musk turtles are classified as threatened, while the Snapping Turtle and Northern Map Turtle are designated as species of special concern. Even Painted Turtles are now listed at risk federally.
Starting in late May, female turtles begin searching out a place to lay their eggs, preferably with well-drained, loose, sandy soil or fine gravel. Both males and females turtles also cover many kilometers in search of mates, feeding grounds, and preferred summer hangouts. Invariably, they encounter roads in their travels. Although Southern and Central Ontario has Canada’s highest concentration and number of turtle species, it also has the country’s highest density of roads. This spells disaster. The road carnage in June is especially devastating, since egg-bearing adult females are often the victims.
So, what can drivers do? The most important thing is to slow down and carefully watch the road surface ahead, especially when travelling near wetlands, lakes and rivers. If you see a turtle on the road and traffic conditions are safe, consider stopping, putting on your emergency flashers, and moving the animal to the shoulder in the direction it’s heading – even if it’s going away from the water.
If the turtle is small, you can simply carry it across the road. If you are dealing with a Snapping Turtle, however, the safest technique is to push and prod the animal along with a stout stick or shovel. You can also lift or pull the turtle, holding onto the rear of the shell. Another option is to simply stand guard, and let the traveler get where he’s going on his own. It is also important not to straddle a Snapping Turtle with your car. Snappers jump up when they feel threatened, thereby hitting the undercarriage of the vehicle as it passes over them. This results in serious head trauma and shearing injuries to the carapace.
If you find an injured or deceased turtle, call the Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre (OTTC) at 705-741-5000. Remember to note the location such as the road, GPS coordinates or the distance from an intersection a given landmark. In the case of an injured turtle, carefully place it in a well-ventilated container with a secure lid. Do not transport turtles in water and do not offer them anything to eat. The OTCC has First Responders throughout the province. They are primarily veterinarians who have been trained in emergency turtle care. There is also a team of nearly 1,000 province-wide volunteers who help get the turtles to the centre.
Turtle populations are also in decline because of habitat loss and egg predation. Predators such as skunks and raccoons usually discover the nests within 48 hours of egg-laying, dig up the eggs and have a feast. They leave behind a familiar sight of crinkled, white shells scattered around the nest area. Since these predators flourish most anywhere there is human settlement, few turtle nests go undiscovered.
If you come across a nest that has been disturbed by a predator, carefully place the eggs back in the hole and bury them. Another option is to bring the eggs to the OTTC to be incubated. The centre is located at 1434 Chemong Road, just north of the lights at County Road 19. Record the location of the nest as precisely as possible. You can also help to protect new nests by lightly sweeping the surface of the nests (to disperse the scent) or temporarily covering the nest with a board for the first few days.
Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre
Opened in June 2002, the Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre is the only wildlife rehabilitation centre dedicated solely to providing medical and rehabilitative care to native Ontario turtles. Admission numbers have steadily climbed, and 2018 saw 945 patients. These turtles come from every corner of the province.
Because so few of these animals ever reach sexual maturity – females can take anywhere from 8 to 25 years before breeding – each adult turtle is part of an extremely important group. Therefore, it is essential to rehabilitate turtles that have been injured. Fortunately, turtles are resilient, and their ability to recover from injury is quite high. Once healed – often after an overwinter stay -they are released in the closest body of water to the rescue site.
Shell fractures are one of the most common injuries, and putting the shell back together is no less than orthopedic surgery. Fractures are initially stabilized using an adhesive and tape. After administering an anesthetic, shell pieces can then be wired together, using orthopedic wire and a dental drill. Although a shell fracture can be the most obvious injury, internal damage is more life threatening. Just like any animal that has experienced extensive trauma, the turtle goes into shock, hence the need for timely veterinary care. Surgery is also required for facial injuries, fractured jaws and the ingestion of fishing hooks. Hooks can become lodged in the head, mouth, stomach or intestines, and can easily become fatal.
A Snapping Turtle hit by a car on June 1, 2017, provides a great example of the work done by OTCC. This individual was suffering from trauma to the head, which is a common injury in Snapping Turtles. Unlike other species, they are unable to protect their head in their shell. When the turtle was brought in, he was given pain medication and fluids in order to stabilize his situation before surgery. He was then anesthetized, and surgery was performed by Dr. Sue Carstairs, the centre’s Executive and Medical Director. By mid-August, the turtle had recovered fully and was released to the wild by month’s end.
The OTCC also has an impressive hatchling program. Since half the admitted turtles are females and many are carrying eggs, it’s essential to ensure that these eggs are not lost. The pregnant mothers are induced in the same way as humans. Eggs are also collected from deceased turtles, which can also be checked out for disease and used in studies on environmental contaminants. All the eggs are hatched at the centre, and the babies released back into the mother’s wetland. In 2018 alone, 4011 eggs were incubated, and 2100 turtles returned to the wild.
The OTCC is a Registered Charity and depends on donations from the public. Donations can be made online at ontarioturtle.ca or in person. You can also help turtles by volunteering for the Turtle Taxi program, turtle care (e.g., feeding, cleaning tanks), fund-raising projects, and education and outreach. Complete the contact form at the bottom of the Volunteer page on the website. Visitors are always welcome at the centre, which is open Monday to Friday from 9:00 am – 5:00 pm, and on Saturdays from 9:00 am – 3:00 pm.
To raise money to help save Ontario’s turtles, an organization known as Turtle Guardians is holding Turtle Walks this month. Tomorrow, June 8, a two-kilometre family walk will be held in Peterborough, followed by other area walks on June 15. Meet at the Riverview Zoo parking lot at 10 am. There will be face-painting, crafts and ambassador turtles like 60-year-old Jeremiah, the Snapper. For more information, go to turtlewalks.ca.
You might also want to become a Turtle Guardian yourself. Guardians help track, monitor and protect turtles across Ontario. For example, level 3 guardians can become involved with road surveys and turtle tunnel assessments. Data is gathered at known ‘turtle hot-spots’ to assess the potential of installing turtle tunnels. These ingenious passageways, coupled with a cloth barrier on the sides of the road, allow the turtles to pass safely under the road. Information can be found at turtleguardians.com
Climate Crisis News
Although it seems counter-intuitive, the cold, wet weather we’ve experienced this spring in the Kawarthas may be due to a quickly warming Arctic. Research is now linking increased Arctic warming to a weakened jet stream – the narrow band of high-altitude wind that blows west to east across the Northern Hemisphere and controls our daily weather. Instead of usually blowing straight as it used to, the jet stream is now meandering much more to the north and south like an S lying on its side. It is also becoming stuck in place. When this happens, the same weather conditions can last for weeks on end. Right now, a bend to the south over eastern Canada is allowing cold Arctic air to drop down into our latitudes. The opposite happened last summer when a bend to the north ushered in blistering heat from the south, which lasted for weeks and killed scores of people in Quebec.