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.
For more information about turtle nests, including important guidelines for creating and installing nest cages, stay tuned for our next Turtle Nest Blog Series.
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.