Turtles in trouble
It was a beautiful sunny day in June, heading home from the cottage. Driving beside one of the lush marshes that dot the Canadian Shield, we encountered a young woman in the middle of the road wearing shorts, a t-shirt and flip-flops. She was waving her arms frantically to get us to stop, so we pulled over and popped on the emergency flashers.
There, on the tarmac in front of her, was a mature snapping turtle. The woman kept nudging it with her toes, trying to get it to move off the roadway. Her companion was flapping a fern leaf trying to encourage the snapper to move. Both had their fingers and toes very close to the animal – NOT a good idea.
Snapping turtles look like prehistoric relics from the age of dinosaurs. Rightly so, because they existed over 200-million years ago. The common snapping turtle evolved about 40 million years ago. It has a very small bottom shell (plastron) and upper shell (carapace). It looks a little too big for its shell. It cannot fully “hide inside” when disturbed. Instead, it uses its long agile neck and powerful beak-like jaws to snap and bite any predators. They can reach all the way back to their hind legs! This was my concern for the women trying to help that snapper on the road.
They live in freshwater, preferring slow moving water with a soft mud or sand bottom and abundant vegetation. These turtles are good hunters, catching frogs, fish, birds and even chipmunks when the opportunity presents. They also eat aquatic plants. However, they will eat carrion and decaying plants. They can be quite aggressive on land, but prefer to swim away when disturbed in the water.
Snapping turtles can live 50-70 years, but some over 100 have been found in Algonquin Park. The carapace can be as large as a garbage can lid on an ancient specimen, but most mature adults are about the size of a frying pan! The shell can be black, olive or brown in colour, and is usually covered in algae.
In late May or early June the female may travel a good distance to find the right sandy soil to lay her eggs. She scoops out a hole with her strong hind legs, and lays between 20-50 eggs the size and colour of a ping-pong ball. She covers the eggs back up and returns to her wetland home. Raccoons, foxes, and skunks enjoy the protein-rich eggs: only about 1 in 100 will hatch. Big fish and big birds hunt baby turtles.
The greatest threat to snapping turtles, however, is humans. They are slow-growing creatures: adult females take almost 20 years to reach sexual maturity. Some are hit by cars when they are crossing the road to look for nesting sites. Draining wetlands also reduces their habitat. In some places they are hunted for their meat and eggs. All these factors put them at risk.
Snapping turtles are listed as a “species of special concern” in Ontario. This means that biological and environmental threats may endanger or threaten them. Effective April 1, 2017, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry has banned the hunting of snapping turtles. This change happened after months of public consultation.
The move is supported by thousands of concerned citizens who urged the government to end its “open season” policy on the big reptiles. It’s also good news for the Suzuki Foundation, which warned that the hunt was not sustainable.
“Snapping turtle populations will decline with even minor increases in adult deaths,” it said. “Hunting adds to the cumulative adverse impacts of other significant threats to the species, making recovery more difficult and expensive.”
You can get involved! Help turtles by paying attention to the “turtle crossing” signs, and taking care to avoid hitting any turtles you may see on the road. If possible, find a large shovel and help the turtle to other side of the road.
The Toronto Zoo runs a Turtle Tally program for citizen scientists to participate: torontozoo.com/adoptapond/turtletally.asp. The Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre, on Chemong Road in Peterborough, takes injured turtles and nurses them back to health: ontarioturtle.ca or call 705-741-5000 if you have a turtle emergency. They’re on Facebook too: facebook.com/KawarthaTurtleTrauma.
Nancy Melcher is The Nature Nut. Send details of your sightings or questions about the natural world to: firstname.lastname@example.org.