Turtles, often referred to as modern day dinosaurs, with their distinctive domed, bony shell, are easy to recognize. This unique armoured architecture provides turtles with protection from predators. However, despite their protective shells, seven of Ontario’s eight species of turtles are currently listed as species at-risk under the Ontario Endangered Species Act, 2007, and face ongoing threats including habitat loss and fragmentation, road mortality, and increased nest predation.
In Ontario, turtle nesting season can begin as early as May and can last until mid-July, depending on the year and location (Figure 1). Female turtles select nesting sites based on numerous factors, including: soil characteristics (sites with loose, sandy substrate) and exposure to the sun. Beaches, shorelines and the shoulders of roads are often selected as nesting sites for these reasons. Nesting along roads can result in high rates of turtle mortality, as female turtles expose themselves to a direct threat (vehicle traffic) while trying to access road shoulders to lay their eggs.
Across the province, hatchling turtles typically emerge from their nests in mid-August through to September. While this is the case for many turtle species, some species, such as Painted and Map Turtles, spend the winter in their nest chamber after hatching from their eggs and don’t emerge from the nest until April or May the following spring! If you are wondering what you can do to help Ontario’s turtles, read on to find out the most frequently asked questions related to turtle nests and the practical stewardship actions you can take:
1. In the spring, I see lots of turtles on the road or road shoulder. What can I do?
During this time of year you are seeing more turtles, especially females, as they are searching for a nesting location. Sometimes female turtles will cross a road to access a wetland, or are searching for a nesting site on or nearby a road (Figure 2).
If the turtle has not started nesting yet and is on the road, and keeping your own safety in mind, move the turtle off the road in the direction it was headed. Step-by-step video instructions on how to move turtles can be viewed here. Apart from moving turtles off roads and out of harm’s way, it is illegal to capture and move any of Ontario’s turtle species. Turtles should never be transported to new locations, even if the habitat where the turtle is headed does not look ideal.
All turtle sightings can also be reported to the Ontario Reptile and Amphibian Atlas (Atlas). The Atlas is a citizen science project that tracks distribution and spatial trends of reptiles and amphibians across the province, over time.
2. I have found a female turtle nesting beside the road. What can I do?
After you have safely pulled off of the road, keep your distance away from the female (at least 10 metres) to ensure that the nesting process is not disturbed. The nesting process involves: searching for the nest location, digging the nest, laying the eggs, and burying the nest. Depending on the species, temperature, and individual, turtle nesting can last anywhere from 10 minutes to 1 hour. After the female has covered her nest, observe the direction she heads. If she tries to move across the road follow the directions outlined in question 1.
3. I have come across a female turtle nesting (somewhere other than on a road) or searching for an appropriate nesting location. What can I do?
Take care to observe the female turtle from a distance (at least 10 metres) to minimize disturbing the nesting process. If a female is spooked repeatedly, or in a way that is very stressful, she may end up ‘laying’ her eggs in the water. Retaining the eggs can be harmful to the female, and if the eggs are laid in water they will not survive.
In most cases, there is no reason to engage with the female turtle or her eggs. Sometimes there are exceptions (e.g. landscaping or renovation projects that lead to the destruction of a nest) and in these cases you should contact your local Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) office or the Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre. They will try to work with you to find a solution that works for everyone.
Another exception is when a large number of predators (i.e. foxes, racoons, wolves, crows) are known to be near your house or cottage (Figure 3). In this case, covering a nest with a cage may help to protect it from predation during incubation.
4. I have come across a female turtle nesting somewhere other than on a road. There are a large number of predators (i.e. foxes, racoons, wolves, crows) known to be near the nesting location. What should I do?
Before deciding to interfere with a nest, there are a few questions you should ask yourself first.
Is a cage necessary? Generally, experts would recommend you think carefully about whether or not a protective cage is necessary. The predation of turtle nests is a part of nature and provides a food source for many predators, and turtle populations are adapted to relatively high levels of nest predation. However, in many parts of Ontario, populations of nest predators are much higher than they would have been historically due to human activities (e.g. cities support unnaturally high racoon populations). In areas with large populations of “subsidized predators”, nest predation rates may by unsustainably high over the long term, and management actions, such as nest protection, may be warranted. Keeping this in mind, the Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre (OTCC) or other turtle experts can help to determine if and when nest caging may be appropriate.
If the nest is in a natural area, do not cage the nest. Many parks manage their own turtle populations with practices determined through years of scientific study. Furthermore, an authorization from the park is often required to conduct monitoring, research or other conservation activities such as nest caging.
If you do decide to protect a turtle nest with a cage, we recommend the following guidelines:
Use a pre-existing nest cage design that has been approved and recommended by turtle experts, such as the design that is provided by the Toronto Zoo Adopt-a-Pond Program or the OTCC (Figure 4).
Never disturb the nest or the eggs; if you feel that the nest is in danger and needs to be moved, contact your local MNRF district office for advice.
Ensure that the cage provides openings that the hatchlings can exit through. If using a wood frame, cut small holes at the base of the cage. If using a mesh cage, ensure that the mesh is large enough for the hatchlings to exit, or cut larger holes that they will be able to escape through.
Ensure that the cage does not interfere with or alter the nest environment (e.g. changes to the amount of sunlight, reduced vegetation cover etc.).
Authorizations under the Ontario Endangered Species Act and Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act may be required if these guidelines are not adhered to (e.g. if the nest environment is altered in any way, or if the cage does not allow the hatchlings to leave on their own).
Setting up effective nest caging takes a lot of time and consideration, so please think carefully before taking on this responsibility.
5. I have found a turtle hatchling emerging from its nest in the fall or spring, or a tiny turtle on its way from the nest to the nearest water body or other habitat.
This is another scenario where you can sit back, and enjoy watching nature in front of you! Soon after emerging from their nest, hatchlings begin to move to the nearest waterbody or other appropriate habitat (Figure 5).
It may seem like hatchlings could be vulnerable to predators, and need your help. And while the first statement is true, it is important to remember that predation is a natural occurrence in nature. Not much is known yet about how turtles navigate the landscape and how or when turtles learn important cues, but many experts believe that the movement from nest to water is an important time in the life of a turtle.
That being said, if you find hatchlings emerging from a nest on the side of a busy road it is recommended that they be moved off the road in the direction they were headed. While it is not advisable to move hatchlings at all, in this scenario if they are not moved there will be few survivors due to the grave risk traffic poses.
6. I have found an injured turtle that has been hit on the road. How can I help it?
If you can, safely and gently remove the turtle from the road. Record your exact location, and place the turtle (and her intact eggs, if it is a gravid female) in a box or container. The container should be well ventilated with a secure lid, and if available, lined with a slightly damp towel.
Then, as soon as possible, contact the OTCC by phoning 705-741-5000. The OTCC will arrange pickup and delivery of the injured turtle to their rehabilitation centre. The OTCC has the largest rehabilitation centre for turtles in the province, and has an extensive volunteer network that works together to transport turtles to their facilities.
If a gravid female cannot be rehabilitated, her eggs may still be viable, and with careful incubation, hatchlings can be released at the site where the female was found. This action is so important for turtles – not only do you have the ability to save a mature, adult, female turtle but also her offspring.
Thanks for reading and your interest in helping turtles! You can be a turtle hero today by following these simple stewardship guidelines and actions.
Dr. Julia Riley is an ecologist and herpetologist currently based at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. Before moving to Australia her research focussed on the biology, behaviour, and conservation of Ontario turtles, and she still continues work on this topic today. If you want to know more about her current research, check out her website at: www.rileybiology.com.
Emma Horrigan is Ontario Nature’s conservation science coordinator.