21 Jun 2013

Giving Turtles a Helping Hand

by Jan Thornhill
Newly hatched snapping turtle (photo: Megan Racey, USFWS)
In the past few days, I’ve had five separate close encounters with turtles—three painteds, a Blanding’s, and a snapper. Why? Because it’s turtle-nesting season and I was helping females get safely across the road so they could lay their eggs. It's nice to do my part even if they sometimes make my hands smell funky.

My favorites are common snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina). They’ve been around for 40 million years and they look it. They’re very long lived—and long-necked!—and old ones can weigh as much as a ten-year-old child. In their wetland homes, they act like reptilian garburators, scavenging dead fish and other animals while carving out underwater routes for smaller reptiles, fish and amphibians. Because the snapping turtle’s lower shell, or plastron, is small, it can’t just hunker down and tuck in its head and legs the way other turtles do when threatened. Instead, snappers have developed an aggressive temperament and can be downright ornery. They have powerful claws and a sharp bony beak that—you guessed it—snaps shut, though not hard enough to take off a finger.  

A snapper can't tuck itself into its shell because its belly plate is too small. (photo: Jarek Tuszynski)
Like all turtles, snappers lay their eggs on land and sometimes have to walk substantial distances to find suitable nesting spots. Unfortunately, this means they often have to cross roads that are near waterways. Though snapping turtles are well armed against predators, their hard shells and sharp claws are no match for the wheels of fast-moving cars and trucks.

But even without the dangers of crossing roads, snapping turtles don't have it easy. They face heavy egg predation from animals such as raccoons, skunks and foxes, who can easily smell out freshly buried eggs and dig them up. And even when a nest is overlooked and the eggs hatch, young snappers still face so many dangers that the chances of surviving long enough to reproduce are incredibly slim, so slim it’s been estimated that only about one in 1,500 eggs laid will produce a turtle that reaches sexual maturity. 

Many female snapping turtles wait almost twenty years to they lay their first eggs. (photo: Moondigger)
Along with natural stressors, road mortality and severe habitat loss (southern Ontario has lost about 70% of its original wetlands to development), snapping turtles have yet another problem to contend with—hunting. Anyone with a valid recreational fishing license is permitted to "harvest" up to two snapping turtles a day in Ontario, with a possession limit of five. Considering that snapping turtles have been listed under Ontario’s Endangered Species Act as a species of special concern because of the aforementioned stressors, the continuation of this hunt seems unconscionable.
An adult snapping turtle with hitchhiking snails. (photo: Willy Logan)
What You Can Do
Help a Turtle Cross a Road
Pull over to a safe spot before getting out of your car. If it's any species other than a snapping turtle, use two hands to carry it in the direction it was travelling. Turtles often urinate when picked up. Don’t let this startle you or you might drop it! NEVER pick a turtle up by its tail—you could damage its spinal cord.
Snapping turtles have long necks that can easily stretch half the length of their carapace and they can also inflict a nasty bite or gouge you with their claws, so it's best not to pick them up. Instead, try using a stick or a shovel to coax them across the road. A snapping turtle will also sometimes latch onto a stick held near its mouth, making it easy to drag it across the road.
Protect a Clutch of Eggs
If you know the location of a new turtle nest, you can lightly sweep the surface to remove the scent or cover it with a board for a few days. You can also protect a nest from predators with a piece of wire mesh (at least 2’x2’) stapled onto a wooden frame or held down with rocks. Remove the mesh protection after 14 days. DO NOT disturb the eggs in a nest.
Report Sightings
There are various turtle monitoring programs in North America that want to hear about turtle sightings:
Help an Injured Turtle
Never try to nurse an injured turtle yourself. Use Google to find a licensed wildlife rehabilitation facility near you. In southern Ontario, contact the Kawartha Turtle Trauma Centre (705-741-5000). For information on how to transport an injured turtle: http://kawarthaturtle.org/blog/about/drop-off/
Support the Kawartha Turtle Trauma Centre
This non-profit, registered charity operates a hospital for injured wild turtles. They release recovered turtles back into the wild and also harvest eggs from wounded females, which they incubate and release after hatching. You can volunteer to be a Turtle Taxi driver, help with ongoing care, donate money or simply help to spread the word about their work: http://kawarthaturtle.org/blog
Stop Snapping Turtle Harvesting in Ontario
Write your local MP. Write Ontario’s Minister of the Environment and the Minister of Natural Resources. There's an online email you can send via: http://action.davidsuzuki.org/snappers


1 comment:

Paula said...

Wow! thanks for all the pointers on helping turtles. Where I live, we have one species of native turtle -- the Western Painted turtle. It manages to share local lakes with the pet Red-Eared Slider turtles that people have abandoned. http://www.crd.bc.ca/watersheds/protection/wildlife-plants/paintedturtle.htm Glad to have your warning about snapping turtles!