Let’s “Shellebrate” World Turtle Day

Today is World Turtle Day: an annual celebration that helps to promote the protection of turtles, tortoises and their habitats. So take a pause today — maybe a long pause — and pay tribute to our hard-shelled, slow-moving friends.

There are many threats to turtle species around the world, from climate change to the illegal trade in turtle meat, eggs and shells. Here in the GTA, the loss of wetland habitat and road mortality are major reasons for population decline.

Roadsides are attractive to nesting females, providing well drained soils and gravels — but passing cars pose a danger to both the mother and her hatchlings. Plus, when a roadway slices through a wetland, turtle species may be forced to cross busy roadways to reach foraging or nesting areas, placing them at greater risk of being hit and killed by vehicles.

snapping turtle on the side of Heart Lake Road

From 2011 to 2016, with the help of citizen scientist volunteers, Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) conducted a road ecology study on Heart Lake Road in Brampton — a thoroughfare that cuts across two significant wetland areas — to gather data on vehicle collisions with wildlife. This research led to the construction of a special passageway beneath the road that allows turtles and other wildlife to move from area to area safely.

This video tells the story:

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TRCA is a world leader in ecological restoration. We restore and enhance degraded wetlands, and even create new wetlands, providing habitat for our local turtle populations.

You can help, too! A few simple actions can make life better for turtle species in the GTA:

  • Slow down when driving or cycling near wetland areas.
  • If you spot a turtle in the road, move it if you can safely do so — be sure to place it in the direction it was heading — and report the sighting to your local municipality.
  • Don’t put anything but clean water down a storm grate.
  • Don’t litter — and pick up other people’s litter. Turtles can be especially vulnerable to discarded plastic bags and plastic ring beverage holders.
  • Donate to an organization like The Living City Foundation that supports improved habitat for turtles and other wildlife.

Know Your Local Turtles!

Ontario is home to eight species of turtles — seven of them endangered. (The eighth, the Midland painted turtle, is expected to join the list soon.) Here’s a handy guide:

Painted Turtle: As the weather warms up, you’re likely to see painted turtles basking in the sun on logs in Ontario’s rivers, lakes, streams and wetlands. You can identify them by the red and yellow stripes on their necks, legs and tails.

Midland Painted Turtle
A Midland Painted Turtle

Northern Map Turtle: The Northern map turtle gets its name from the distinctive red, yellow, tan and orange lines on the upper shell or carapace, which resemble contour lines on a map. The rest of the body is olive green.

northern map turtle
An encounter with a Northern map turtle at Tommy Thompson Park

Snapping Turtle: If you’re looking for a glimpse into the prehistoric past, meet the snapping turtle: the triangular spikes on its tail are very Jurassic Park. It’s also the largest of Canada’s freshwater turtles, capable of growing up to 47 cm in length. The snapping turtle isn’t a great swimmer, so it can usually be found walking along the bottom of small ponds and rivers, or trundling across roads.

snapping turtle
A snapping turtle

Blanding’s Turtle: The Blanding’s turtle is a true road warrior, traveling a greater distance each year than any other Ontario species, as  it moves overland from summer nesting spots to overwintering habitat. Identifiable by its bright yellow chin and throat, the Blanding’s turtles is also unique among local species for feeding exclusively on land.

Blandings turtle
A Blanding’s turtle spotted at Tommy Thompson Park

Spiny Softshell Turtle: Known for its distinctively long and slender snout, the spiny softshell has the ability to stay submerged for prolonged periods, making it  the official hide-and-seek champion of the turtle world. This species can actually breathe through its skin like a frog, allowing it to lie buried in the sand at the bottom of a pond for up to five hours.

Spotted Turtle: You’d think the bright yellow spots on its upper shell would make this species easy to see. Not so much. The spotted turtle is Ontario’s smallest, and prefers to stay well out of sight in warmer weather.

Eastern Musk Turtle: – The Eastern musk turtle is known more commonly as the “stinkpot,” a nickname it comes by honestly: when threatened, the species emits a musky odor. The Eastern musk is nocturnal by nature, and rarely swims. You can distinguish it from lookalike species by the yellow stripes above and below the eyes.

Wood Turtle: Looks and brains – the wood turtle has it all. Its attractive, sculpted shell and bright orange colouring on the chin, throat and legs make it a favourite among wildlife watchers. The species is wily, too, when it comes to scrounging up dinner; it can often be seen stamping at the ground to force worms to the surface. Be on the lookout for wood turtles in the region’s woodlands and flood plains throughout the summer.