All turtles in Ontario are protected under legislation. Turtle populations are at risk of extinction and are considered “Species at Risk” in Canada, which means each turtle is important to maintain populations. Turtles are protected under the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act, Endangered Species Act, the federal Species at Risk Act, and turtle habitats may also be protected under these pieces of legislation as well as municipal laws in most jurisdictions.
Direct harm to a turtle and also to their habitat features can carry fines of up to $25,000 or one year in jail. If someone kills a turtle, removes it from the wild or removes turtle eggs; or if someone buys or sells a turtle or their eggs, fines can be as much as $100,000.
If you witness a turtle being harmed, or if you see evidence of poaching, take pictures or videos of the incident if possible and if it is safe to do so. It is helpful to have proof of the harm or which documents the intent to harm a turtle, and therefore pictures or video footage can be vital to a case.
On roads it may be difficult to avoid turtles, however, if you see a vehicle swerve to hit a turtle that is on a yellow or white line, or a turtle on the road shoulder,, or if there are few vehicles on the road and the car has ample opportunity but still doesn’t avoid the turtle, these situations can be evidence of intentional harm. In these cases, get the license plate of the vehicle involved.
At the time of the incident, call 911, or if you have evidence of an infraction but are not on the scene, you can call Ontario’s conservation officers at 1-877-TIPS-MNR (847-7667). If you wish to remain anonymous, you can also call Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-TIPS (8477).
Please remember to be cautious and do not approach if you feel unsafe. Also do not trespass on private property to gather evidence. Instead call one of the hotline numbers and stay turtley cool and turtley safe too!
Turtle species across Ontario are under threat, and it’s up to us to save them
Turtle species across Ontario are facing multiple threats to their survival. The two biggest threats are habitat loss and road mortality.
Many of their habitats, like marshes and swamps, have been altered by humans.
“So, in terms of what we’re seeing, of course, in especially in the last four years, is land conversion at a rate that has been unprecedented without sufficient planning tools,” said Leora Berman, Chief operating officer for the conservation organization The Land Between.
The Land Between is a bioregion extending from Ottawa Valley to Georgian Bay. It is home to 1/3 of Ontario’s turtle population and has seven to eight of Ontario’s turtle species. The Land Between is the last refuge for many turtles.
“Over 70% of wetlands in southern Ontario have been lost over the past century. This has removed the required habitat for many turtles and many other species of wildlife,” said David Seburn, Freshwater Turtle Specialist at the Canadian Wildlife Federation.
Wetlands are crucial for the survival of turtles and other important species.
Sadly, southern Ontario has the highest density of roads, which results in turtles getting run over by cars. Road mortality, along with habitat loss and other factors, contributes to the 50% decline in Ontario’s turtles.
Experts say if we lose another 20% of snapping turtles, they could be extinct in twenty years.
In Haliburton, Grace the 125-year-old turtle has outlasted bubonic plague, speeding cars and ever-shrinking wetlands
Around the time Grace was born, Ukrainian scientist Wademar Haffkine had just created a vaccine in record time to combat bubonic plague and was testing it on himself, the first human trial in history.
As Grace took her first steps in the world, future prime minister Lester B. Pearson was born and Queen Victoria became the first monarch to mark 60 years on England’s throne. Dracula by Bram Stoker was published and Thomas Edison’s kinetoscope device that produced moving pictures was patented.
Grace is older than any living human being, which makes sense because she’s a snapping turtle. The species can live over 275 years and, based on the size of her shell, Grace is at least 125 years old. She lives in Haliburton County, Ont., in a wetland next to three lakes, a hospital, a high school and an elementary school.
Hibernation is commonly observed in many species of animals, especially those inhabiting Northern regions where there are significant drops in temperature during the winter months. In Ontario, freshwater turtles are ectotherms (their internal temperatures mimic the external temperatures) which make them “unequipped” to directly face the ruthlessness of winter conditions. For this reason, they stow away in the winter to avoid the unfavourable conditions of the colder months. Scientists have found that some turtles overwinter close together in groups, and this practice is called communal hibernation (Edge et al., 2009; Litzgus et al., 1999; Brown & Brooks, 1994).
Communal hibernation is thought to have many benefits, but not in the way you’re used to hearing about. As ectotherms (where their temperature is determined by their environment), huddling together does not provide individuals with a rise in body heat like it does for endotherms such as humans and even penguins who may gather together for warmth (Duncan, 2016). Rather, the benefits of gathering together present themselves in less obvious ways. Some of these benefits include using group “signals” which would increases the chance of leaving hibernation sites at the same time (Litzgus et al., 1999), or as signifiers for a safe place to go when available hibernation sites become a limited resource (Greaves & Litzgus, 2007). Group hibernation may however, simply be a result of a group of individuals having overlapping home ranges (Edge et al., 2009). But there are some indications that there is more to this story:
Interestingly, aggregations at overwintering sites are more common in Northern ranges. This observation indicates that overwintering areas may, in fact, be a limiting resource to turtle survival there and that may be why turtles overwinter in groups (Newton & Herman, 2009).
Additionally, increased mating opportunities are thought to result in congregations of turtles. People may think that turtles mate in the early spring before nesting season begins. While this can be the case, turtles also perform courtship and mating at overwintering sites late into the fall before stowing away from the cold. This is possible for most turtle species (Pearse & Avise, 2001) because most females can physically store sperm in their bodies for future use (Environment Canada, 2015). In turtles, tubules in the oviduct that are specialized to store sperm are generally observed, indicating that this may be a common component of their reproductive behaviour (Pearse & Avise, 2001). Repeated paternity was commonly found in a study on Blanding’s turtles, displaying that females could use stored sperm over subsequent years from the same male to produce her eggs (Henning & Hinz, 2016). Amazingly, there have been instances where female turtles in care (captive turtles) have been isolated from males, and yet, astonishingly, the females continue to produce offspring (Pearse & Avise, 2001). Therefore, hibernating where other turtles are found has advantages; the increased likelihood of finding a mate! Should a female be unable to find a mate in the spring, she can find a mate in the winter, and still successfully lay eggs during the nesting season using stored sperm (Carrière et al., 2009).
Another benefit: males generally move great distances during the typical spring mating season to seek out females (Buchanan, 2017). However, if males mate at overwintering sites, they are less motivated to seek out mates and thus, able to spare energy during this active season, because, at times, female mates may be hard to find. Therefore, communal overwintering also allows a male turtle to save energy and yet increase success, by mating at the same site he overwinters (Carrière et al., 2009).
In a study investigating hibernation site selection of Blanding’s turtles, Christopher Edge and collaborators (2009) discovered multiple Blanding’s turtles copulating and hibernating together (≥ 5m) in Algonquin park. At these sites, groups of turtles ranged from two to seven individuals, with both sexes present in all scenarios. This could suggest that communal areas are promoted by the mating opportunities related to grouping together, or it may simply be because habitat destruction has limited the number of overwintering sites available for the population (Edge et al., 2009).
In a study conducted to investigate courtship and mating behaviours of Northern Map turtles, results suggested that communal hibernation was widely displayed in this population. In Lake Opinicon, 75% of studied males ventured near two popular turtle overwintering sites throughout the course of the study. The scientists were able to track the movement of these individuals using radio-telemetry. This tool uses radio signals and transmitters attached to animals (in the case of turtles it is typically attached at the rear-end of their shell) (Litzgus et al., 1999)) to observe their movement while off site. The data did not indicate what percent of males successfully completed overwintering at these sites. However, the results suggest that the majority of males in the area do travel close to communal sites to reap the benefits of group mating (Bulté et al., 2021).
Alternatively, in a study on Wood turtles conducted in Sudbury, Greaves and Litzgus (2007) did not find any evidence to support the idea that turtles overwinter in groups. This places some doubt on the general view that all turtles have a tendency to behave this way. The study was run using visual observation and tracker data. Although the general consensus was that turtles did not overwinter in groups, a pair was documented mating at the overwintering sites before separating for the winter. This supports the idea that turtles may use opportunistic fall mating interactions to increase their fitness (Greaves & Litzgus, 2007).
In Georgian Bay Ontario, a four-year hibernation study on Spotted turtles noted that communal hibernation was commonly found. The researchers again employed the use of radio-telemetry to track the locations of Spotted turtles over the years as well as visual observations to supplement this data. The primary purpose of this study was to assess the ecology and typical hibernation behaviours of Northern Spotted turtles. In the process the scientists also made other remarks. Of the eleven hibernation sites monitored, seven were found to be used for communal hibernation of turtles (≤ 9). This region is, however, considered to be the northern range of a Spotted turtles territory suggesting that this observation could be due to limited hibernation site availability, as previously discussed (Litzgus et al., 1999).
While hibernating in groups seems to have many upsides, this behaviour can nevertheless be dangerous for vulnerable subpopulations of freshwater turtles because grouping together can increase the risk of extirpation (a subpopulation being completely wiped out in an area). In cases where large groups of turtles come together, the increased activity can attract predators (Litzgus et al., 1999). Related is that during the winter, turtles are in a state of inactivity under the water because the low temperature causes metabolic depression and physiologically, metabolic depression limits an individual's ability to move (Newton & Herman, 2009; Edge et al., 2009). Therefore turtles cannot escape attacks by predators at this stage. These situations can be particularly detrimental to unstable subpopulations as it can result in a huge loss of reproductive adults, and potentially result in extirpation (Litzgus et al., 1999).
But also, habitat destruction or alteration can affect overwintering populations; The viability of typical overwintering sites can be changed and make that area unsuitable for overwintering (Litzgus et al., 1999). Examples include when wetlands and shorelands are “filled in '' or drained, or water levels are changed, most often, artificially. Typically, turtles select a pond or water body for overwintering, where there is the potential for a barrier to form between the turtle and the ambient air temperature. The barrier produces a comparatively warmer environment (Ross and Anderson, 1990). Some wetlands may be quite small with stable water levels, a thick warm substrate, also where a layer of ice may become the needed boundary between the water and the air. Without this stable underwater refuge, a turtle’s risk of desiccation and encountering freezing temperatures is significantly elevated (Markle et al., 2020). Unexpected changes in habitat conditions often result in indirect changes to the hydrological condition and water temperatures of the area (Bodie & Semlitsch, 2000) which then can result in many unintended deaths. Therefore, turtles grouping together for the winter, means that more individuals are vulnerable to negative events, and which may increase the chance of local extirpations. In other words, many adults can be killed off because of human alterations to habitats or during a particularly difficult winter (White, 2013).
It is accepted that communal hibernation is exercised by freshwater turtles, however, researchers have not concluded that it is employed in every turtle species. Future studies may aim to determine whether this phenomena exists reliably in all turtle populations, and should also aim to assess the patterns of this behaviour based on the spatial ecology of areas. Doing so, will help to inform attuned policies and improved conservation measures.
Generally, conservation of all hibernation areas (chiefly wetland habitats) is of the utmost importance because death of adult breeding turtles individually will destabilize local populations, but also where there may be communal groups, local extirpations of turtle populations is an immediate concern. As habitat areas and their quality are compromised by human activity, and as temperatures become more inconsistent due to climate change, the threat to turtle populations is an increasing reality for Ontario freshwater turtles. Human development with subsequent habitat loss may also increase communal hibernation, and then in addition to the vulnerabilities from more destruction or climate change, increased threat from predation events is added to the mix. For all these reasons, continued efforts to preserve wetlands and surrounding areas are vital to the protection and longevity of freshwater turtles in Ontario.
Written by Andrea O'Halloran, edited by Leora Berman and Kiara Duval
- Bodie, J. R., & Semlitsch, R. D. (2000). Spatial and temporal use of floodplain habitats by lentic and lotic species of aquatic turtles. Oecologia, 122(1), 138-146.
- Brown, G. P., & Brooks, R. J. (1994). Characteristics of and fidelity to hibernacula in a northern population of snapping turtles, Chelydra serpentina. Copeia, 1994(1), 222-226.
- Buchanan, S. W. (2017). The influence of altered habitat: landscape ecology of freshwater turtles in Rhode Island (Doctoral dissertation, University of Rhode Island).
- Bulté, G., Huneault, B., & Blouin‐Demers, G. (2021). Free‐ranging male northern map turtles use public information when interacting with potential mates. Ethology, 127(11), 995-1001.
At The Land Between we have wonderful staff members and volunteers who dedicate their time to protecting the region’s turtles. Today I am going to give you a sneak peek into what a day in the life of a field technician looks like. It’s different every day, and the name of the survey game is flexibility!
Conservation technicians work in pairs 5 days a week and conduct road surveys and wetland surveys. Essentially, we are looking for turtles, frogs, and snakes. “Ewww” for most people, but fun for us because we are very dedicated to this work. For road surveys, we drive slowly along roads with high turtle mortality rates. When we are driving and come across a wetland, we will safely pull over and walk along that wetland looking for turtles, frogs, and snakes.
Our survey schedule depends on weather and temperature. If it’s not raining, we start around 4:30. If it is a rainy morning then we will head out at 8 am and if it continues to rain throughout the day, we take a late afternoon break and then go out surveying again. Sometimes we have been out until 2 am with nesting turtles. These are very long days for us, but we know the work is important so we do it gladly. If the temperature reaches below 12 degrees turtles won’t be out so if a day is ever that cold, we usually spend it catching up on data entry or writing blog articles like this one.
What we do when we find a turtle:
If the turtle is on the road, we will pull over safely and then help it cross the road in the direction it was moving to…unless it is nesting. If nesting, when the turtle is finished she usually heads back to the wetland from where she came.
If the turtle is basking on the side of the road we will first make sure that it isn’t nesting. When a turtle is nesting you must never bother it because it could get spooked and might not finish laying.
If we find a nesting turtle, we will stay with it until it is done (Hence, the 2 am nights mentioned earlier.) Once the mother is done we will weigh and measure her and then excavate the nest. We have received specialized training in
excavation and TLB has permits to excavate nests.
When we find a turtle that is not nesting or finished nesting we will weigh them, give them a special name, measure the carapace (upper shell) and plastron (lower shell), then we take a photo with a special code including the turtles’ name, age/sex, action (i.e. basking/traveling), and the date of capture. We will also write 2021 on their plastron so we know if we ever get a recapture. If you ever find a turtle with 2021 on it contact us at The Land Between. Once we are done processing the turtle, we will release it back in the direction it was going but safely off the road- and again, it if was nesting, we help her to the wetland behind her. Otherwise, after the turtle is moved, we will watch the turtle until we are certain it isn’t going to head back onto the road.
Our staff is vigilant in sanitizing equipment between each turtle we process to ensure diseases won’t be spread.
Sometimes we get calls from members of the public when they see a turtle on the road or nesting and
if one of our teams is close by, they will head over to help.
Whenever we find a nesting turtle it is very exciting. Especially when it is a Blanding’s turtle since they are a more threatened species. If we find a turtle that has just started nesting it means we may be watching it for a few hours. The turtle needs to pick a spot they like, dig deep enough to lay her eggs, and then cover it back up. When the turtle is done laying, we will capture her and process her and then we will excavate the eggs. Turtle eggs are usually predated within the first 24 hours of laying. We excavate eggs in high risk areas such as roadsides or driveways, to help avoid predations, giving them a much higher rate of survival. Also because the hatchlings can be released where they were laid, but we can help ensure they can avoid being injured on the roads or eaten by predators by bringing them to the nearest wetland/water area.
Once a team has completed their route they will head back to The Land Between headquarters (if their route is close by) where we have an incubator set up to keep the turtle eggs. The eggs will be transferred carefully to a container with vermiculite, weighed, then put safely into the incubator. All data, including the nest ID, coordinates of the nest location, and details are recorded carefully.
Once the hatchlings start emerging in August, the team who excavated the nest has the privilege of releasing the hatchling back to the closest wetland to where they were found. Also, we call anyone who helped us save the nest to be witness to the release. So cute!
Every day is different. Some days may be slower and end at 10 pm and some may be longer and end at 2 am. We let the turtles determine that and we are good with that.
If you would like to learn more or become a Turtle Guardian you can visit the Turtle Guardian website here https://www.turtleguardians.com/the-land-between-ontarios-turtle-country/
Written by: Nadia Pagliaro, Conservation Technician
It is that season! Here are some tips to help you spot and therefore help turtles on roads:
Turtle Guardians celebrates the first billboard to raise awareness about the vulnerability of turtles in Ontario. The "It Takes 60 Years to Replace One" message alerts drivers, that may not have understood, the length of time it takes until one egg succeeds to reach adulthood in the overall population. Ancestors had the mistaken idea that turtles were as prolific and abundant as rodents, and that they could reproduce as quickly, but we now know that this is simply not true. In fact, turtles may be one of the very few species that has such a low recruitment rate and therefore who take the longest to be replaced in nature- thus the reason turtles need to live to such old ages, likely beyond 275 years old. Therefore each one, and especially the adults and adult females that are crossing roads to nesting sites, are precious. The first billboard went up in May on Highway 62, south of Bancroft and north of Madoc. This highway is renowned for high turtle mortality, with fast cars and transport trucks. However, this highway is also fairly straight and flat, allowing motorists to see turtles ahead and avoid them. We are now raising money to install more billboards in other key areas across Ontario. Help us by donating through our GoFundMe Campaign