Ontario’s Turtles (Part 2)

In our previous post, Ontario Turtles, we looked at the 8 species of turtle native to Ontario.

Did you know turtles are vertebrates? The structure of their shell is formed by the ribs which fuse together. The vertebral column, or spine, is also fused to the upper part of the shell, and the whole shell is covered in large scales called scutes.

The shell provides protection for the turtle as it can pull its limbs, head and tail inside. However, the shell also limits leg movement and its size and weight limit mobility. In snapping turtles, stinkpots, and spiny softshells, the lower shell is smaller, which limits the amount of protection offered, but also allows more leg movement.

In order to survive Ontario’s harsh winter, turtles hibernate underwater in ponds, rivers, wetlands, or other freshwater sources. Female turtles are usually larger than males, with the exception of snapping turtles.

Seven of Ontario’s eight turtle species are listed as threatened, endangered, or special concern under Ontario’s Endangered Species Act. The painted turtle is the only one considered not at risk. It takes a long time before turtles are able to reproduce; they don’t reach reproductive age until 15-20 years old. However, due to their long lifespan they can mate many times throughout their lives, laying eggs in nests of sand, gravel, or vegetation. Egg mortality rates can be very high, meaning that the deaths of adult turtles can be harmful to the entire turtle population.

Turtles are threatened by a range of issues and activities. Nest predation by raccoons, foxes, and pets is a big threat to several turtle species. Turtles can be found in a range of habitats including aquatic, wetland, and terrestrial, but loss or fragmentation of these habitats in the form of wetland drainage, pollution, declines in water quality, and shoreline development, among others, can be big threats. Road mortality is a significant issue on land, and in water another threat is injury from boat propellers. Invasive species such as the zebra mussel also represent a threat to some species. Finally, poaching (for example, for the illegal pet trade) is highly problematic – a single poaching event can be detrimental to an entire turtle population.

How you can help?

  • Never buy native species of turtles or any turtles that have been caught in the wild. If you see them for sale in a pet store or a food market, please contact the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry.
  • Watch out for turtles on the roads, especially between May and October, to avoid road mortality.
  • Report sightings of endangered turtle species to the Natural Heritage Information Centre.
  • Volunteer with your local nature club or provincial park to participate in surveys or stewardship work.
  • Private land owners have a very important role to play in species recovery. If you find native turtles on your land, you may be eligible for stewardship programs that support the protection and recovery of species at risk and their habitats.
  • Protect wetlands, shorelines, old muskrat lodges, and surrounding vegetation on your property.
  • Visit the Toronto Zoo Adopt-a-Pond website to learn more about Ontario’s turtles, their habitat, and conservation initiatives.