Turtles are Keystone Species
A Keystone species is an animal whose role in the food-web is essential to an entire chain of linked species, habitats, and ecosystem services. This means that without them the ecosystem can collapse and elements can be sorely compromised.
When it comes to turtles, they are essential in maintaining water quality by removing the sources of harmful bacteria - Turtles eat carcasses of fish and animals that die in lakes and wetlands. Turtles are also essential in keeping fish habitat and wetland areas thriving! Turtles, as they age, eat more and more seeds and vegetable matter, rather than protein. They cycle nutrients in their guts and shells, and with the seeds in their guts, as they walk through their territories, they spread and encourage new life and new growth. Therefore, while beavers in the region keep water on the land, turtles spread biodiversity so that wetland habitats thrive. Over 70% of Ontario's wildlife depends on wetlands and shorelands, therefore Turtles are supporting a majority of our fish and wildlife...which along with good water quality, supports our wellbeing too!
Turtle Populations are Critically in Decline
Turtles can take between 30 and 60 years to replace themselves in Nature- that means it takes this long for them to have one successful offspring. Turtles can take between 8 and 20 years to reach sexual maturity- and then, there are so many challenges that eggs, then hatchlings, and then juvenile turtles face in Nature and which obstacles are made worse by humans! Only 0.06% of eggs hatch and then hatchlings survive to reach adulthood. Adult turtles do not face many natural threats and the older the turtle, the more eggs they typically lay. Therefore adults are essential to keep populations stable. And adults, including all ages of turtles are being hit on roads, removed from nature for pets, or are deliberately killed because people are afraid of them (as is the case with Snapping Turtles). Therefore we have lost about 70% of our turtles in Ontario.
Why Know-How is Needed Before Helping
Many people feel that taking hatchlings or juvenile turtles home to care for them is helpful. Unfortunately, this only makes things worse. Hatchlings need to remain in nature because they imprint their territories in their minds, and this mind-map cannot be remade when they are older. Therefore if they are not left in nature, they will not be ab
le to find annual hibernation sites, feeding areas and survive into the future. Also turtles navigate using the sun as an east west clock, and may have magnetite in their brains to show them where north is. Once they imprint a territory, they know exactly where they are going! and where they have been too! For instance, they will hibernate within one metre of where they were the year before! When turtles are removed from their territories, they get distressed and may stop eating as they try to return home, or may die trying as they journey to find home. Indeed even if they find hibernation and feeding grounds, without a map of the area they are in, this success cannot be long lasting.
Therefore, if there are Turtle Guardians who are trained, skilled and knowledgeable in our communities, and each who helps turtles, turtles will have a chance to survive and their populations may even thrive!