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 other species populations and ecosystem functions can be 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% success rate: this is the percentage of eggs that will hatch and then those hatchlings survive to reach adulthood. Meanwhile, 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. However, adults, and also all ages, are being hit on roads, removed from nature for pets, poached, or deliberately killed because people are afraid of them (as is the case with Snapping Turtles). Therefore we have lost over 50% of our turtles in Ontario and this number may be as high as 70%. It is estimated that if we lose 20% more of our snapping turtle populations, that they will be extinct in 20 years. Snapping turtles may be best cleaning crews and biodiversity agents we have.
Know-How is Needed to Help
Taking hatchlings or juvenile turtles home to care for them is not helpful. Turtles imprint their territories making spatial memories of hibernation areas, feeding areas and other important sites...unfortuntately, this ability to make a "mind map" or learn new territories easily diminishes with age. Therefore if they are not left in nature in their natural territories, turtles may suffer and will be distressed to the point that they may cease to eat. Turtles also navigate using the sun as an east west clock, and may have special qualities in order to sense earth magnetics and understand where north is. Once they imprint a territory, they know exactly where they are going and where they have been too!
We believe in the power of people: with skilled and trained Turtle Guardians in our communities, turtles will have a chance to survive and their populations may even thrive!
Deliberate Harm to Turtles is Illegal
All turtles in Ontario are at risk of becoming extinct. This means that they and many of their habitats are protected under legislation. It can be difficult to avoid turtles on roads, therefore, deliberate harm to turtles should be "obvious" and readily proven. Harm however also includes relocating a turtle from a lake or wetland or roadside, and harm includes interfering with nest sites.
If you see someone directly harming a turtle, hatchling, or even nest site follow these guidelines.