Here at the Biosphere, we love hearing uplifting stories about sightings of species at risk!
Lots of Biosphere residents see turtles on a regular basis during the summer months. There are six species of turtles found in the Georgian Bay Biosphere. Sadly, all six species are listed as “species at risk” by the Federal Species at Risk Act. Many of our community members are surprised to hear that our turtle populations are in trouble, given how often we see them around our homes and cottages. So let’s talk about turtles in the Biosphere, and why they have been granted this status of protection.
If you are seeing lots of turtles, that’s an indication that you’re near fantastic wetland habitat, as it is the preferred home of our local turtles. The Biosphere has several parks and conservation areas, where turtle habitat has legal protections. There are also many Indigenous communities within the territory that are caretakers of the land and water. Lower road density due to our island archipelago provides some further protection. Together, these are some of the factors that have allowed turtles to persist in greater numbers in eastern Georgian Bay compared to many other parts of the province.
With all that habitat in our Biosphere, the turtles must be doing great, right? Not quite. Although habitat loss is the greatest threat to Ontario’s turtles, there are two more threats that have negative impacts.
Road (and boat) mortality
All groups of terrestrial animals are at risk of being hit by cars on roads. Biosphere staff regularly see mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and insects dead on roads. Turtles, however, are more heavily impacted by road mortality than other animals, and it’s not just because they’re slow.
Turtles have a very slow growth rate, taking between 10-25 years to reach sexual maturity. That means that individuals have to live a very long time to reproduce, and replace themselves to maintain their population. In less human-impacted areas, adult survival rates are very high (85-99%), so turtles usually live long enough to be able to contribute to population growth.
Unfortunately, many of our local turtles end up crossing roads several times a year, especially if their habitat has been fragmented by roads. Female turtles are especially at risk of being killed on roads, since they have to find suitable terrestrial habitat for laying their eggs. In many areas, road mortality has decreased the adult survival rate past what is required for a population to maintain itself.
There is also increasing evidence that boats contribute to adult turtle mortality. This is especially concerning for communities like the Biosphere, where boat transportation and recreation is common and can be high density in some areas.
Unfortunately, purposely feeding wildlife or even improperly disposing of garbage can impact the health of turtle populations. Any predator that benefits from the presence of people is called a “subsidized predator”. Most residents of the Biosphere know the importance of keeping garbage away from bears, but keeping food away from foxes, skunks, and raccoons is just as important. These smaller animals pose less of a threat to humans but will happily eat a turtle if given the chance.
Predators often reproduce more effectively when they are subsidized by human presence. Once fall arrives, cottages close up, and residents spend less time outside. The offspring of subsidized predators look for other easy meals when human food is not available.
Adult turtles are sometimes able to get away from the subsidized predators when they are in the water. Turtle eggs, however, are relatively defenseless. Although turtle eggs are a natural food source for many animals in our ecosystem, the balance has been shifted in the predator’s favour.
Community action is protecting our local turtles
Individuals can help reduce road mortality by braking their vehicles for turtles, assisting turtles in crossing the road when safe to do so, and simply reducing speed in their cars (and boats) in turtle hotspots. Keeping garbage, pet food, and bird feeders away from turtle predators helps keep their population at a more natural level. If you notice a turtle nesting on your property, you can use a nest protector to give local turtles a helping hand.
Working with community partners on conservation at the coastal scale also helps mitigate local threats to turtles. Research on road mortality can help us understand which areas would benefit the most from culverts, ecopassage designs, and wildlife exclusion fencing. Road construction practices are being adapted to allow for turtle egg rescue, allowing biologists to incubate and then release juveniles back into the wild. For more information, read: Turtle-y Awesome Research on Skerryvore Community Road and A Tale of a Thousand Turtles.
Working together as a community, we’re making sure that our turtles thrive for many generations to come. To help us in this effort, report your sightings to the Georgian Bay Biosphere iNaturalist project.
Want to learn more about turtles in the Biosphere and how you can help? Watch our recent webinar titled Learning About Miskiikenh – Turtles!