There are 8 species of turtles in Ontario. In the Land Between bioregion across central Ontario, we have 7 of the 8 species...and all species are listed federally as species at risk, which means that their populations are declining rapidly.
The Land Between bioregion is home to more than 1/3 of Ontario's entire turtle population. See our turtle country page for maps
Biology, Threats & Behaviour
Turtles love to eat dead and decaying things that are found at the bottom of ponds, lakes and wetlands- they help keep the water clean.
Snapping Turtles are very comfortable in water and typically only snap on land as they don't have an under-shell (pastron) so they cannot hide in their shells like other turtles. In water only 4 accounts have been recorded of them snapping, 1 when they have been kicked, and the 3 because the turtle had been continually fed by humans or where individuals continually fished at the same spot at the lake, and the turtles began to associate those areas with food. Therefore when something "dropped" in the water such as feet or hands, the turtle expected food! However, turtles are fast learners and we can easily "reteach" turtles not to expect food in these areas. We also may swim with the turtles to "rehabilitate" them.
Snapping turtles are the best scavengers, are good swimmers, and are surprisingly gentle and curious when in the water.
Turtles are reptiles and ectothermic so their body temperature is the same as the environment that they are in.
Turtles are remarkable as the only creature with an exterior shell that is bone and part of their spine.
Turtles, like other reptiles (snakes) are often found basking on roads and rocks and logs when the temperature reaches approx. 21 degrees C in the early morning.
Turtles live a long time and have been estimated to live for over 100 years at least, with some studies showing that they can live up to 400 years, and with Indigenous Peoples across the world having told us that they live up to 1000 years. Unfortunately there is no way of knowing how old a turtle is and how long turtles live.
Turtles take a long time to mature until they can reproduce- up to 20 years.
Turtles need to live a long time because they have very low recruitment rates (few surviving offspring); in fact even for snapping turtles which lay more eggs than other species, less than 0.1% of turtle eggs will make it to adulthood .
This is because eggs and hatchlings face many threats;
- many mammals love to eat turtle eggs and dig up nests;
- if temperatures are too cold, the eggs won't hatch and
- if just slightly cool, for most species, the hatchlings will be males (no breeding females);
- if nests hatch, the young need to find water and while searching around are a eaten by birds,
- if they find water they are then predated by fish
Altogether, this means that it can take about 60 years for one adult snapping turtle to replace itself in the population.
Therefore, every adult turtle is precious and important for the stabilization of turtle populations and the continuation of the species.
Unfortunately turtles face many threats, from people taking turtles home as pets and out of the breeding populations, to pet trades, direct persecution by people who misunderstand that turtles are not aggressive when in their water habitats, the removal or alteration of habitats including lakeshores, bays, wetlands, and pathways between aquatic habitats. But nowadays, the main threat to turtles in road traffic!
Because adult turtles face fewer natural threats, they are the most important age class because they keep populations stable: Adults can have many more successful offspring and therefore are essential to keep turtle populations from declining.
Turtles emerge from hibernation in late April/early May and may be found on roads as they soak up the heat to reduce the lactic acid build up from hibernation. They generally reach peak nesting times during the first two weeks in June. At this time females are heading to their annual nesting sites across roads, and some of these sites are actually on road shoulders. This is the most dangerous time for turtles.
When a turtle is hit and killed on the road, we lose the breeders and many future generations of turtles.
First Nations call the earth "Turtle Island". This is because turtles are as old as dinosaurs and are said to have witnessed Creation...and the Creation story of the Mitche Saagiig First Nations of Ontario says that the world was created on the turtle's back.
Turtles have a relationship with the moon too: Every turtle in the world has 28 ridges around its carapace (top-shell) and there are 28 days between each full moon; and because every turtle has 13 scutes (ridges) on their carapace, and there are 13 full moons every year. Turtles main nesting season is around the first full moon in June; the Strawberry moon.
Finally the turtle is a symbol of Truth, and their 7 parts (legs, arms, tail, head, and shell) correspond to the 7 Grandfather Teachings for living a good life.
Turtle Habitats/Wetland Facts
Wetlands are nature's kidneys- they are vital in regulating water levels and cleaning water. Wetlands are habitats where water stands for more than 45 days of the year and therefore the dead leaves and debris turn into organic soils and plants that grow in wetlands are water-loving unique plants. Organic soils in wetlands act like sponges to hold on to water during floods and to release water during dry-times. Wetland plants and soils together filter water and take up pollutants and excess nutrients out of water, keeping water clean. Wetlands are essential habitats for over 70% of Ontario's species. Large mammals, frogs, birds, fish, and insects all use wetlands at some critical stage in their life- and wetlands are some of the most diverse and important habitats in the world. There are 4 main wetland types in Ontario: bogs, fens, swamps, and marshes. Wetlands are found at the mouth of rives, along rivers, shores of lakes, in isolated pockets surrounded by upland habitats, or in a string of connected habitats.
Turtles need to bask and therefore keeping or placing natural and simple features in the water such as dead timber or logs, will support turtles and also provide habitat for fishes.