9 May 2014

A Baby Snapping Turtle Success Story

Jan Thornhill 
baby snapper (Chelydra serpentina)
Newly hatched snapping turtle—mini prehistoric beast!
There's a small old bridge on our road that a little creek flows under. The bridge has been there long enough that gravel has accumulated on the edges. The gravel's not very deep, but for some reason female snapping turtles think it's a great place to dig shallow holes and lay their eggs. They do this every year. And every year raccoons, and probably skunks and foxes too, find the nests, dig up the eggs, and gobble them up. The turtles often lay their eggs at night and, just as often, by dawn they're all gone.

snapping turtle laying clutch of eggs
The bridge is so cramped, this female ended up damaging
another nest while making her own.
But last year, a few of days after I posted on Sci/Why about freshwater turtles and ways to help them during nesting season, I happened to drive over the bridge while a female snapping turtle was in the process of laying her clutch of eggs. A chance to put my money where my mouth was!

I used a board to temporarily cover the nest when she was done, but I needed something else to protect it for the two months or so it would take for the eggs to mature: boards are okay for a couple of days to mask the fresh turtle scent, but after that nests need to be protected while at the same time leaving them exposed to sun and air and moisture. All I had at home was some chicken wire, which I tried to keep in place with some rocks and pegs, but this proved to be inadequate and one of two nests I covered was dug up within 24 hours. 

Happily, I wasn't the only one monitoring the snapping turtles. My neighbours, Tracy and Jim and their kids, who live beside the bridge, were also paying attention. While another turtle laid her eggs, Jim was constructing sturdy open wooden boxes with heavy-duty wire mesh "lids." These were placed over the two intact nests. Sadly, a raccoon managed to raid both clutches that night by cleverly digging under the boxes. One of the two nests had only been partially dug up, so Tracy carefully reburied the few eggs that seemed undamaged, replaced the box and, this time, put a heavy rock on it. That did the trick and the box remained undisturbed for the rest of the summer.

newly hatched snapping turtle and protective box
A baby snapping turtle impatiently trying to
get out of the protective cage Jim made.
By the end of August, Tracy and I and everyone else who knew what was going on on the bridge were stopping to check several times a day to see if there were any signs of hatching. We'd almost given up when our mail lady, who had made it a habit to slow down to glance at the box every time she crossed the bridge, saw some movement. She drove up Tracy and Jim's lane to deliver the news: "The turtles are hatching!" Tracy called me from the bridge and I raced up the road with my camera.  

And here they are—our little success story of five baby snapping turtles! 

baby snapping turtles and car keys
Five newly hatched snapping turtles!
newly-hatched snappers hiding in sand
Baby snapping turtles are shy.
upside down snapping turtle
Oops! This one fell off an inch-high cliff (the indent from the box).
baby snappers head for water
Tracy and I were worried that the babies would get picked off by predators
before they reached the creek, so we carried them to the water's edge.
newly hatched snapping turtles first swim
All five in the creek. Within minutes they'd all
disappeared into the safety of deeper water.

What You Can Do (*This is a refresher from last year's post)
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


Paula said...

What terrific news about the turtles! It's great to hear about all the people paying attention to the turtles' needs. I appreciate the reminders at the end about how to help turtles.
Here's a link to turtle information for where I live on Vancouver Island. http://speciesatrisk.hat.bc.ca/western-painted-turtle
Here we have no snapping turtles, just painted turtles and some pet red-eared sliders that people have left in ponds.

Jan Thornhill said...

Thanks, Paula!

Paula said...

I've just learned that the website link I gave you earlier says there are apparently a few snapping turtles here on Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland! That info is on another page of that website at http://speciesatrisk.hat.bc.ca/index.php/western-painted-turtle/15-western-painted-turtle/non-native-turtles-found-in-bc/29-key-to-freshwater-turtles-in-bc It seems that people have released a few of these and other turtles, which have survived in our mild winters.

Sandy McLennan said...

Tweeted Oct.2.17: Gift seeing baby snapping turtles hatching [Lake of Bays, Ontario]. 12+. Helped? some avoid going on the road (they seek water). Photo from http://bit.ly/2xToUcQ Sandy McLennan