It’s a critical time of year for several of Ontario’s most vulnerable species.
Turtle species in Ontario are in the middle of their hatching season, a difficult time for the shelled reptiles as the babies are small, slow, and up against staggering odds.
Dr. Sue Carstairs, executive and medical director of the Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre (OTCC) in Peterborough, said that while usually the hatching season would be close to over, weather earlier in the year has pushed the timeline back a bit.
“It’s been going on for a while and it’s a little later than normal because we had that late cold spring,” Carstairs explained.
“Usually they hatch anywhere August through September and sometimes into October. A lot of the babies of some species will hatch but they’ll stay in the nest, so they will overwinter in the nest. But the majority of them come out during the same season and make their way hopefully to the water.”
Being small, slow and completely out of their element, Carstairs said the odds are against the survival of most of the hatchlings, and that’s just the ones who actually make it to the fall.
“Most of the eggs don’t hatch,” Carstairs said.
“They get eaten by things like raccoons and then most of the babies don’t make it to the water. It’s very sad, but that’s sort of the way of the wild out there and that’s one of their purposes, which is fine as long as they’re not species at risk, but because all of the species in Ontario are now at risk, we’re trying to do everything we can to sort of tip the balance back.”
One of the major roles the OTCC plays is as a turtle emergency room, where anyone who finds turtles that have been injured or are in distress can bring them to be cared for and hopefully rehabilitated, to be returned to the wild at a later date.
Turtles may move quicker in real life than as depicted in popular culture, but their penchant for basking in the sun on highways makes them prone to being hit by vehicles.
The centre is also a hatchery for the eggs they collect from injured females who need a place to lay eggs, or those harvested from turtles that do not survive their injuries.
The eggs in the hatchery are on the same timetable as those in the wild, so things can get hectic for OTCC staff at this time of year.
“They’re hatching like crazy now, we’ve got six thousand eggs hatching right now,” Carstairs said.
“In the wild the survival would be like .1 to 1 per cent. We can increase that tremendously just by hatching them and then we can increase it even more by getting those babies back right into the waters so they don’t have to make a trek overland.”
Carstairs explained that anyone who finds a nesting site where the turtles are hatching can help them out by collecting them and bringing them directly to the nearest body of water, setting the babies free in an area where there’s lots of vegetation for them to hide in.
“A lot of people these days are actually protecting the nests,” Carstairs elaborated.
“You’re allowed to do that if it’s on your own property, so they have a nest protector. It has to be specially designed so that the babies can escape and it doesn’t affect the temperature of the nest and so forth. But yeah, a lot of people are protecting them so that they at least get them hatching and then they’re watching for them and then yes, helping them to the to the water if they’re lucky enough to see them hatch.”
But Carstairs stressed that this time of year isn’t just about hatchling turtles, as the adults are still active and potentially trying to cross local roads.
Turtles are resilient animals, and Carstairs noted that the adults have a very good chance at surviving if someone finds one that has been hit by a vehicle and takes action.
“All those turtles that came in to us, the vast majority was through Good Samaritans,” she said.
“Members of the public that took the time to call us and took the time to find out what to do, and then we have a veritable army of volunteers that helps to get them to us for care from across the across the province.”
Indeed, the OTCC has a network of volunteer drivers who are called upon to relay injured turtles from across the province so they can receive care at the centre. Carstairs said that even in northwestern Ontario, it’s still worth calling the centre when someone finds an injured turtle.
“They can call us and we sort of act as a central hotline,” she said.
“And we can discuss with them, talk them through if they need help with how to handle it, how to contain it and then we can get the turtle immediate help.”
Despite this network of helpers, turtles in Ontario are facing significant difficulties. The province is home to eight different turtle species, and seven of those species are currently considered “at risk.”
Part of the challenges facing turtle populations is just how long it takes for a breeding adult to produce another turtle of breeding age into the ecosystem.
“For snapping turtles, it takes almost 60 years to even reproduce enough to replace themselves in the population. That’s just one turtle,” Carstairs said.
“So if a big beautiful turtle gets hit and killed on the road, that’s impossible to replace. If you tip the balance even just a little bit and lose X number or X per cent of turtles on the road, they won’t catch up. So we’re trying to mitigate that and trying to reverse some of the road mortality and also trying to add more of the offspring that would have been lost and trying to replenish populations that way.”
The OTCC also runs education programs that are aimed at teaching people more about the roles turtles play in nature, as well as teaching the public not to take them home as pets, or not to turn them into turtle soup.
“Don’t eat them,” Cartairs warned.
“There’s no need to eat them and it’s no longer legal anyway. So just educating people about that, and habitat loss is a huge problem too of course.”
However, in her ten years at the centre, Carstairs noted that she’s seen the general public trend begin to shift towards protecting turtles.
“Ten years ago a few people would say, ‘Oh that’s interesting’ or ‘yeah, I helped a turtle once,'” she recalled.
“Now you’ll see our bumper stickers on so many cars. Everywhere you go there’s ‘I brake for Turtles’ bumper stickers and we had to double our staff this summer because there were so many calls. I kept reminding, ‘a very very busy staff is a good thing’ because it means they’re getting helped. It’s not that more are getting hit on the road, it’s just that more are getting help after being hit.”
Carstairs said she’s optimistic about the future for turtles in Ontario, and noted that Canada hasn’t yet reached a critical point like some parts of Asia have when it comes to turtle populations.
“I think there’s definitely hope,” she said.
“I’ve seen a lot of progress in the last ten years and again, getting the public behind it is the key because that’s what pushes conservation forward. I think more than even the scientists can do on that angle, if the public’s behind something and are sort of in a constructive way asking for something to be changed, it’ll be changed quicker than if you say ‘here’s a here’s a nice shiny report that says if you do this, this will happen.'”
“If that the public are, you know, nicely bring it up to their councillors and lobbying for it on their own, it tends to get put to the front of the list quicker than we could this,” she added.
For anyone looking for more information about turtles in Ontario or the Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre, you can visit their website at https://ontarioturtle.ca/.
Anyone who finds a turtle that’s been injured or is in distress can call the centre’s emergency line at 705-741-5000.