Be turtle aware on our highways

By Ken Kellar
Turtle aficionado / Staff writer
kkellar@fortfrances.com

If I had a passenger with me, they probably would have gotten whiplash.

Passing by the church, the grey lump I had initially mistaken for a rock eyed the highway with clear purpose. It was only after I had passed it that I realized what it was, and slammed the brakes in response.

Snapper.

I had enough time to find a pull-off, turn my car around, and make it back to the snapping turtle before it could finalize its decision to cross the road. It was a good size, the first one I have seen in the flesh in more than a few years. It eyed me for a moment from its resting spot on the gravel. Eventually, my presence was enough to deter it, and it ambled away from me at a decent pace, back towards the lake it calls home, safe for another day, if not the entire season.

We’ve all seen what happens along our northern Ontario roads in the spring. Our shelled residents hear the call of nature and seek out warm, sandy locations where they will spend their summers basking with a nice cool lake nearby; the total turtle package. Others will find spots to eventually let go their clutch of eggs, ready to incubate through the winter and emerge as tiny hatchlings that will struggle to survive to adulthood, if they make it to the water at all. And of course, before the eggs have even thought to hatch, a good number of their parents will be unfortunate casualties of our modern world, crushed under a passing wheel as they make their slow and steady march across warm, inviting blacktop.

Turtles are a critical species to protect in any wetland area. Ontario is home to eight different turtle species, and of those, seven are considered at least of Special Concern when it comes to their populations. The majority are threatened or outright endangered, but all of Ontario’s turtles are at risk due to the low survival rate of their hatchlings and the high mortality rates they see on our roadways.

In the case of snapping turtles alone, a report authored by OntarioNature.org, the Kawartha Turtle Trauma Centre (part of the Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre, or OTCC) and the David Suzuki Foundation states that because female snapping turtles only start laying eggs when they are around 17-19 years old, and because so few hatchlings survive, one female snapping turtle will have to lay approximately 1,400 eggs in her lifetime to have one baby survive to adulthood. Put another way, that one female snapper would need roughly 58 to 60 years in order to replace itself with one adult offspring. That same report says even a 10 per cent increase in adult snapping turtle mortality would result in the disappearance of half of their population in less than 20 years. In response to these factors, the hunting of snapping turtles in Ontario was made illegal in 2017.

A snapping turtle finishes crossing the highway at the Nestor Falls United Church parking lot on Thursday, June 30, 2022. —Ken Kellar photo

Any snapping turtle death is one more than we can afford, especially if we appreciate our natural waterways. Snapping turtles are not only the largest native freshwater turtle species in Ontario, they are also consummate custodians of our lakes and rivers, feeding partly on dead and decaying fish, animals, and vegetation that sinks to the bottom. Additionally, they create trenches in mud or low water for fish, reptiles, and other amphibians to travel through.

They still face some some undeserved stigmatization as well. Their tempers are the thing of legend, but this is owing to their relatively sparse lower shell, offering them very little protection on land where they are slow and vulnerable. You would be grumpy and snappy too, if your belly was mostly unprotected from passing predators. When in the water, they are far more likely to avoid a swimmer than to approach and take a bite. In fact, the OntarioNature report stresses that the strength of their bites is also a long-standing myth: while they do have powerful jaws, that strength is not enough to snap through a human bone. That feat is reserved for its southern cousin, the alligator snapping turtle.

I have seen far too many dead and dying turtles along our roads. I found one survivor, a painted turtle, with a partially crushed shell only a half-hour after encountering the snapper, along the same stretch of highway. Turtles are hardy animals. Their metabolisms can slow to a crawl when injured, which means that even turtles who appear to be beyond saving have a chance at recovery if they can be quickly brought to an accredited wildlife rehabilitation centre. The OTCC is only one such centre, but as they are located in Peterborough, we’re just too far away to practically transport an injured turtle. But the OTCC is still here to help.

When I called them and told them of my injured passenger, they were back in touch with me within the hour. A wildlife centre in Manitoba could take the turtle, they said, provided I get it to a holding spot in Kenora. After a last minute arrangement, my turtle charge was off to Kenora with my boss, still in the only container I had on hand when I found it; an old cardboard box. It has now most likely arrived at that centre, assuming it survived the trip, and with good luck it will recover and eventually be released in the waterways close to where I found it.

It’s up to all of us to be turtle aware on our roadways. Turtles large and small will make the dangerous trek across our local highways, and we can do our part to keep their populations thriving. If you find a turtle on the highway, pull over and assist if it is safe to do so. A smaller turtle can be gently lifted and brought across the road in the direction it was facing. Larger turtles like snappers can be coaxed across, lifted by the hind shell and wheelbarrowed, or placed on a shovel or floor mat and dragged across. Don’t drag a turtle on its bare shell; micro cuts and abrasions can cause dangerous infections. And if you ever find a turtle that has been hit by a passing vehicle, alive or dead, call the OTCC at 705-741-5000. An inured turtle has the chance to be surgically mended and rehabilitated, but even a dead turtle could still have viable eggs that can help to continue to support these critical populations.