For veterinarian Sue Carstairs, springtime means long days putting injured turtles’ shells back together, piece by tiny piece, at the Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre. She’s used to keeping busy, but so far this year has been like no other.
Last year the facility admitted fewer than 400 turtles. This year more than 500 turtles have already come through their doors.
“I think we're the only people glad it hailed yesterday,” Carstairs says. No turtles came in during the freak hailstorm that hit the area June 26, several did the next day.
Thousands of turtles are hit by cars every year in Ontario, Carstairs estimates. Some of them end up in the conservation centre’s trauma unit — the province’s only treatment facility for severely injured turtles. Her surgical work consists mainly of repairing shells, dealing with head trauma, and salvaging eggs (even dead turtles may have viable clutches of eggs inside them).
Carstairs isn’t sure why there’s been a surge in chelonian patients this year; it could be that the trauma centre recently launched an education program, so more people are aware of their services and know where to bring injured turtles they find on the road. As well, last year’s drought may have kept the turtle population sedentary, while this year’s wet conditions could be encouraging activity.
“There's still a lot we don't know about turtles, so the exact reasons why we have higher or lower activity one year are not certain,” says Christina Davy, a research scientist with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry. “It's definitely an area we need to do more research on.”
Of the eight species of turtle in Ontario, seven are at-risk. The spotted turtle and the wood turtle are endangered. Only habitat loss kills more turtles than cars do; roads all across southern Ontario stand between the dry areas where turtles like to lay their eggs.
The death of even one turtle is a massive setback for the species, particularly if that species is already endangered. Generally, turtles are not fertile until they reach adulthood — at around 15 to 20 years old — meaning it takes more than a decade to replace a breeding-age turtle killed on the road.
“Turtles have a really, really slow strategy for life,” says Davy. “It can take over 17 years for a snapping turtle to become an adult, and then lay one clutch of eggs, and of those eggs it's unlikely that any of those will survive to adulthood because everything eats baby turtles. So when you take an adult female out of the population it has a really, really big effect.”
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Turtles aren’t the only animals threatened by cars, but they’re among the most visible. An entire field of study — road ecology — is dedicated to studying such threats, and to determining how wildlife and traffic might coexist.
“Ontario is the leading jurisdiction in the world for road ecology solutions, but we're unfortunately in a situation where you can't walk more than 1.3 kilometres in any direction in southern Ontario without hitting a road. You've got the highest density of roads in southern Ontario coupled with the highest density of biodiversity,” says Dave Ireland, chair of the Ontario Road Ecology Group.
Ireland says with newer projects like the Highway 407 expansion, the province has taken to building fences that keep turtles off the road and below-grade passages they can use to cross. But Ontario is covered in old roads with soft shoulders that make ideal nesting places for turtles.
“[In the future] every time a road is installed that will be part of the natural process, but right now we're playing catch-up and that will take decades,” says Carstairs.
Meanwhile, concerned citizens often help turtles cross the road, and Davy wants to make sure they’re doing it the right way. When you pick up a turtle and heft it across the road, she advises, be sure to take it in the direction it was originally facing.
“We have this goofy slogan: When you move a turtle, you should move a metre — not a mile,” says Davy. “In many cases the turtles are older than the road. Some of them are 80 or 90 years old. They've been moving from wetland to wetland for years.”
Photo courtesy of Clarence S Lewis and Ontario Nature, licensed for commercial use under a Creative Commons licence. (See the uncropped version.)
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