Thursday, June 18, 2009

Turtles on the Path

Snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) seen in Crothers' Woods

What should you do if you encounter a turtle on the trail (or the road)? Marnie at Beechwood Wetland and the Toronto Star have mentioned recent encounters with turtles. Mid June is a critical time for Ontario turtles because it is the one time of the year that turtles leave their aquatic homes to go and search for a place to lay their eggs. Chances are that if you see a turtle on the trail it is going to be female. It will either be burdened with eggs in search of a nesting site or on its way back to its home in the pond.

There are 8 species of turtles native to Ontario and six of them are listed as being threatened or endangered. The biggest threat to them occurs at egg laying time because they often cross roads while travelling on land. Because they are slow moving they are vulnerable to road traffic and often get hit. This is a tragedy because not only does the mother die but if she is carrying eggs her future offspring are lost too.

Turtles like to dig a nest in soft sand. However they often can't find this so they might try digging in gravel beside a road or a path. Depending on the species there might be 5-40 eggs in a clutch all about the size of a ping pong ball. Turtle eggs take about 60-80 days to hatch. Many eggs do not make it because they are a favourite food of foxes and raccoons. In places like Toronto with its large raccoon population, it is estimated that over 99% of clutches are predated.

Turtles, especially snapping turtles have a bad reputation as being aggressive. However this behaviour is evident only on land during the brief time they they travel during the egg laying season. Once back in their aquatic habitat, they are shy and docile and will often swim away when approached by a wading or swimming human.

So getting back to the question: what to do when you encounter a turtle on the trail? Please be respectful, keep your distance and wait for them to cross the path. If they are in danger of passing traffic, you might try be a good traffic cop and tell other trail users to slow down. Please don't pick them up as they might bite you. If the turtle is on a busy road, you could try to hurry them along but please keep your contact with them to a minimum. They are after all wild creatures and may see your help as a threat.

If you are interested in finding out more about Ontario's turtle species, the Toronto Zoo's Adopt-a-Pond program has a good website that provides a lot of information.

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