Shellback safety: please look out for turtles

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Kate Aley

It's the height of summer and turtles are getting all maternal. The Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) are raising awareness of these beautiful creatures' seasonal need to crawl around on the side of the road -- and occasionally lurch their way across it -- with their Carapace initiative. Visit carapace.ca to learn about how to report the sighting of a turtle - live or dead -- along the highway. The NCC uses this information to identify what kind of turtles live in the area and to plan ways to protect them. Pick up a sticker at your local depanneur and help educate your friends and neighbours.

Pontiac2020.ca asked Caroline Gagné, Project Manager Outaouais and acting chief of sciences for the Quebec region of the NCC, a few more questions about turtles in this region.

Pontiac2020.ca: Why do turtles sometimes try to cross the road?

Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC): It’s not unusual to see a turtle cross the road. During their active season, from May to October, turtles are on the move to search for food, find a new habitat, look for a mate, or lay eggs.

P2020: Why do they want to lay their eggs in the sand/gravel along the side of the road?

NCC: Sand and gravel are ideal substrate for turtles to lay their eggs. Sometimes they can’t find a suitable habitat in nature because of habitat destruction so they use what they can find, and gravel shoulders are common in rural areas.

P2020: What happens if a turtle gets hit by a car but isn't killed?

NCC: If a turtle is badly injured after being hit by a car, take it to a local animal shelter or a veterinarian. They will assess the situation and may decide to euthanize the animal to prevent unnecessary suffering. In some cases, the shell can be patched up to help the turtle heal and get back to its habitat.

P2020: What should I do when I see a turtle trying to cross the road?

NCC:  Always consider your own safety first. You can help the turtle cross the road in the direction in which it is already headed. Do not move it to a different spot and do not put it back in the water. If you need to pick it up, never hold it by its tail. Instead grab the shell near the back with both hands while staying close to the ground, or push the turtle very gently across the road with an object.

 P2020: Why are turtles important within the ecosystem?

NCC:  All animals are important within an ecosystem. Turtle have a role both a as predator and a prey. They help clean up ponds or lakes by eating plants, insects, and dead fish while creating food for other animals. They also help to disperse other life forms by traveling from wetlands to wetlands. Removing any species from its ecosystem can drastically affect the balance by altering other organisms. As humans, we don’t necessarily see the impact of each species on our well-being, though a slight change may have a trickle effect which can eventually have consequences on our lives.

P2020: How long does it take for a turtle to grow to maturity?

NCC:  The age of maturity varies among species and genders. Turtles may take up to 25 years before reaching maturity and starting to reproduce.

P2020: Are there rare turtles in the Pontiac area?

NCC:  The Pontiac is very lucky to exceptionally have five turtle species in its area: the Midland Painted Turtle, the Snapping Turtle, the Map Turtle, the Blanding’s Turtle and the Musk Turtle. The Painted and Snapping turtles are common species in Quebec while the other three are rare.

All species except the painted turtle are classified as species at risk at either the national level, provincial level or both. Most turtles are at risk because of the combination of turtle biology and human impacts. Turtles have a late maturity and a low egg survival rate (approximately 2 eggs out of 100 become adult turtles). To maintain their numbers within a population, turtles therefore count on the survival of the adults, especially the females. However, the presence of humans in the habitat brings many threats and increases adult mortality rates, which can have serious consequences on a population. For example, scientists have determined that an increase of more than five percent in annual mortality for the Wood and Blanding’s turtles could lead to the decline of a population. Every effort counts to protect our turtle populations!