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Ontario - The Home of Our Many Turtle Species!

Updated: Feb 19, 2022

Figure 1: Group of Painted Turtles having a communal meeting

In Ontario, we are home to eight different species of freshwater turtles!

1) Painted Turtle

2) Snapping Turtle

3) Northern Map Turtle

4) Eastern Musk Turtle

5) Blanding's Turtle

6) Wood Turtle

7) Spotted Turtle

8) Spiny Softshell Turtle

What's not surprising is that all our turtles here in Ontario are designated as a Species at Risk. Within this designation, Painted Turtles, Snapping Turtles, Northern Map Turtles, and Eastern Musk Turtles are Species of Concern. Blanding's Turtles are the only species that are threatened while the Wood Turtles, Spotted Turtles, and Spiny Softshell Turtles are all endangered.

You're probably wondering what all these designations mean, well, let me run you through them as simply as I can!

Species of Concern: this is a species that could potentially become threatened or endangered because of biological characteristics or other external threats such as climate change or loss of habitable land.

Threatened: this is a species that could be on the verge of becoming endangered or extinct if we do not take appropriate actions to prevent such a catastrophe.

Endangered: this a species that is certain to go extinct or become extirpated.

Extirpated: this is a species that is no longer found in it's particular home range (in this case it would be Ontario).

Extinction: this is a species that no longer exists anywhere in the world anymore.

Now that we are a bit familiar with the status of our turtles here in Ontario, I want to take a moment to talk about why our turtles are in this situation anyway.

We know that turtles have been around for about 230 - 300 million years - they were here long before the dinosaurs were and even survived the meteorite! Clearly turtles are pretty hardy reptiles that have gone through a lot of environmental pressures. So, why now? Why is it that our turtles are the world's most endangered vertebrates today? Well, there are many reasons, but I'm going to talk about some of the major ones!

A lot of times people come across turtles in the wild and think that it would be really cool to have them as pets in their homes, so they take the turtle from their home and make them captive. I cannot stress this enough, turtles are not meant to be pets and should be left in the wild. In fact, it is illegal here in Canada to take a turtle from the wild and keep them as pets unless you have a license to do so. Sometimes people also take turtles from the wild and sell them to make a profit.

Turtle populations are vulnerable because of nest predation. When mature adult turtles lay eggs, they find a sandy beach where they dig a hole with their claws and lay their eggs. Once the female adult has complete laying her eggs, she leaves the nest, however, close by there are predators waiting to find their next meal! Predators like foxes, racoons, coyotes, birds, etc., come a long and dig up the nest and feast on the eggs. This is why the survival rate of turtles that make it to adulthood is so low.

Did you know that Southern Ontario has destroyed about 72% of its wetlands! It is important to note that all of our turtle species require both land and water to survive! So, the loss of wetlands in Ontario have a detrimental effect on our turtle populations and limit the range in which our turtles can thrive. In addition to this, our wetlands are being taken over by invasive plants such as phragmites. Phragmites grow in such big clusters that they make the water absolutely impossible for turtles to swim through.

Figure 2: Phragmites overtaking a wetland and choking out other native species

Finally, let's talk about the biggest reason why we are losing our turtles... ROADKILL. Southern Ontario has lots and lots of roads and that is pretty typical the more we develop our cities. The problem lies in the fact that turtles do not understand what a road is or even what a car is! Usually turtles will travel long distances to find the right habitat or a suitable place to lay their eggs and to do this they have to cross many roads here in Ontario. In the process of crossing roads, a lot of turtles get hit by cars and either die or suffer severe damage both internally and externally. Obviously the solution to this problem is not to get rid of roads, but to create more eco-passages that are built under roads for turtles to go through.

Till we have established eco-passages in every hotspot for turtles, we need to make sure that we are keeping a close eye on the roads for turtles starting April (this is when out turtles come out of brumation). If you see a turtle that has been hit on the road and looks like it is dead, please still take it to the turtle hospital as if the turtle has eggs in it, it can still be recovered and given a chance to survive.

I hope you enjoyed this little post about our turtle species here in Ontario and found it useful as we get closer to Turtle Season!

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