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Thank you for giving mother turtles a helping hand!

A special thank you to visitors and volunteers at our Conservation Areas for helping us this June give mother turtles a helping hand. They and our staff have been placing turtle nesting protection structures over newly created turtle nests. Why, you ask? Well, read on to learn more about this annual activity that gives a very important reptile a fighting chance in our changing wetland environments.

Giving the Mother Turtle a Helping Hand

Each June, female turtles make their way to sunny, dry, open sand, gravel and soil areas found adjacent to their home wetland, pond or creek to make a simple nest and lay their eggs. These 'ladies' have a mission and stop at nothing to get to their preferred nesting site and will cross roads and driveways to get there. If you visit Lynde Shores Conservation Area in June, you might see a female turtle digging a hole with her hind feet and depositing her eggs, as many as 40 of them, then covering them up with sand before heading back to the water. The eggs remain in the nest for about 16 weeks, while the juveniles, or baby turtles, develop into miniature versions of their parents. Unfortunately, the eggs are often snatched up by hungry predators like skunks, raccoons, foxes, crows and gulls. When a nest is disturbed like this, scientists refer to it as 'predated'.

What a 'snap'! Snapping turtle laying her eggs at Cranberry Marsh.
What a 'snap'! Snapping turtle laying her eggs at Cranberry Marsh. Photo courtesy of Terri Martin.

If the nest is lucky enough to go unnoticed by predators, the hatchlings will emerge in September or the following spring. They will either be all male or all female, depending on the temperatures in the soil during their stay underground. Extremely hot or cold will produce females, and mid range temperatures result in males. As the hatchlings instinctively make their way back to the water, across the same dangerous path of their mother, they have a 1 in 10 chance of making it to adulthood.

Snapping turtle hatchling in the sand at Cranberry Marsh

Turtle nesting boxes in a wagon on their way to be installed
Turtle nesting boxes on their way!

In our Conservation Areas you may have noticed square wooden boxes about 2-feet square, with hardware cloth across the opening and bricks on the corners. These are turtle nesting protection structures to help our turtles reach their full potential and trick the predators into finding their supper elsewhere. We have Snapping, Midland Painted and Blanding’s Turtles regularly spotted in our Conservation Areas; the Blanding’s less so these days. We also have a non-native species of turtle called the Red-eared Slider. This is the turtle you used to purchase from the pet store.

Often the pet turtle becomes less of a novelty and unfortunately, rather than taking it back to the pet store, which is the proper thing to do, people release them into the wild. Unfortunately, the Red-eared Sliders can bring disease and compete with native turtles for habitat. They often do not survive the winter freeze, but with our milder winters that is not always the case.

Why did the turtle cross the road?

Some turtles, like the Snapping Turtle, will travel up to one kilometer from the water to find a suitable nesting site. Unfortunately, their preferred site can be along the gravelly shoulders of our roads. This often leads to the females being fatally injured and results in loss of future turtle populations in that wetland. In 2006, Central Lake Ontario Conservation Authority initiated a wildlife mortality study along Victoria Street in Whitby which resulted in modified road designs, wildlife barriers and passages to assist turtles and other wetland species in travelling between the wetlands on both sides of this major throughway.

It is not clear why the turtles take such risks, but changes in landuse and roads surrounding a wetland, can reduce available nesting sites, while unknowingly creating alternatives that pose a significant risk to unsuspecting turtles. The Snapping Turtle has 'binocular' vision, meaning they can only look straight ahead, and often don’t see the danger of a car approaching. This phenomenon of turtles nesting along our roads is happening across Ontario, and many efforts are being made to ensure our turtle populations are better protected.

A sign of the times – Turtle Crossing sign

Young girl holding Watch for Turtles sign

Thanks to recent efforts by the Region of Durham and other municipalities in our watershed, turtle signs have been installed in high turtle population areas to remind motorists to slow down and watch out for turtles during the nesting season, from May to September.

Efforts at Lynde Shores Conservation Area have also focused on creating new nesting habitat closer to our wetlands, providing safer alternatives and reducing the turtle fatalities on our roadsides. Our habitat creation project is located in an area less than 50 metres from the water, with good safe access, providing minimal vegetation cover, on a south-facing slope and incorporating a variety of substrates at varying depths of 30 to 45 centimetres (12 to 18 inches) making it attractive to more than one turtle species.

Turtle Power

Turtles are cold-blooded reptiles and require basking logs or places where they can capture the warmth of the sun in order to warm their body temperatures and get moving. We have installed a number of logs, of varying diameters, with their roots attached, to complement existing logs that have come to the edges of Lynde Creek and Cranberry Marsh on their own. These logs sit above water level, providing turtles with a good overview of their surroundings, allowing them to easily escape any approaching dangers.

Turtle Food

Turtles can live from 20 to 80 years depending on the species and the health of its environment. Turtles are largely scavengers and eat a lot of dead and decaying matter. Think of them as a large 'blue box' or 'green bin' for wetlands, recycling nutrients back into the system.

Oh, and contrary to popular myths, snapping turtles will not bite your toes when you are swimming. In fact, as soon as you hit the water, they will swim in the opposite direction to get away from you!

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