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Posts Tagged ‘Chrysemys picta marginata’

Why did the turtle cross the road? Probably for the same reason as the chicken: to get to the other side. I recently came across my first road-crossing turtle, early in the season. He was just a little guy, parked in the sun, halfway across the road. It wasn’t a busy road, but when you move at the speed of a turtle, any road crossing is hazardous. I stopped my car and got out to give him a hand. It was obvious that his mother had told him “Never talk to strangers!”, because as I approached, he withdrew tightly into his shell. I picked him up and, after a couple of commemorative photos, set him down in what seemed like as safe a spot as possible on the other side of the road. Even though he was not disposed to communicate with me, I could tell what he was thinking: what the heck is a road doing in the middle of my home???

Good question. Certainly, in a sane world, it wouldn’t be there, running as it does through a wetland. The road is a sign of Canada’s overpopulation problem. We tend to think of overpopulation as a problem in China or India, but the fact is, there are way too many people right here in Ontario. Canada may be a large country, but most of its 30 million or so citizens live in a narrow band along the southern border. This fringe is the same region that is home to much of the country’s biodiversity, and too many people have stressed many regions to the limit. A good example is Carolinian southwestern Ontario. Although Carolinian Canada makes up just 1% of Canada’s land area, it has a greater number of flora and fauna species than any other ecosystem in Canada. One third of the rare, threatened and endangered species of Canada are found there. Ninety to 98% of the natural habitats in this region have been destroyed or altered by human activities. All that is left of the once-rich natural diversity is huddled in a scattering of parks and conservation areas.

In the case of turtles, the arrival of so many humans invading their habitat has been nothing less than a disaster. Most Ontario turtles live south of the Canadian shield. After 250 million years of residency here, when they survived even the cataclysmic forces that killed the dinosaurs, 6 of Ontario’s 8 hard-shelled turtle species are now threatened with extinction. The cause? Us.

The wetland homes of turtles have been drained or filled in at an incredible rate in the last century. Pollution and pesticides take a toll, but among the greatest hazards facing turtles are roads. In overpopulated Ontario, roads run everywhere and cars don’t stop for lumbering turtles. Many turtles are run over and killed on roads. A perfect example of our inability to control our excesses, our horrific impact on the domain of turtles, is ongoing right now in Ottawa. A planned extension of the Terry Fox Drive is poised to destroy the wetland home of a population of the threatened Blanding’s Turtle. The Sierra Club and other environmental groups are fighting to put the development on hold, but delays are likely to be temporary.

The environmental footprint of the average Canadian is a size XL…extra large! When the number of people living in a region can not be permanently maintained without depleting resources and without degrading the environment, you have a serious overpopulation problem. And in this case, the Blanding’s Turtles are the latest victims.

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As I came within view of our pond on the last warm afternoon, I was excited to see a row of Painted Turtles sunning themselves on a log! Painted turtles (Chrysemys picta marginata) are the most common of Ontario‚Äôs eight hard-shelled turtle species, six of which are designated as at risk. It is not unusual to see a painted turtle basking on a log. However, last summer I didn’t see a single turtle in the pond. Not one. And now, here were five, lined up in a row, looking perfectly at home!

The turtles weren’t nearly as happy to see me as I was to see them. As soon as I cleared the treeline and came into view, three of the turtles quickly slipped into the water and disappeared.

As I approached the edge of the pond, a fourth turtle concluded that discretion was the better part of valour, and followed its companions into the pond.

As I moved up to the edge of the water, one brave turtle watched me warily from the log, about 15 feet out from shore until finally it, too, decided it would be best to take cover. I felt a bit sorry for having disturbed them, but after I had walked a bit farther around the pond and was heading back to the house, I looked back. One of the turtles had already returned to the basking log and resettled itself in the sun.

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June is turtle season in Ontario. This is the time of year when turtles are most often seen as they travel to their nesting sites. Unfortunately, “hitting the road” can sometimes be all too literal for turtles as they risk their lives crossing roads. I spotted the above Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta marginata) in the middle of the road, apparently basking in the sun. When I got out of my car to move (probably) her, she quickly withdrew into her shell. Painted turtles are about 11 to 14 centimeters long, with females larger than males. As this turtle was at the top end of that range, it was likely a female. I set her down in vegetation at the side of the road she had been heading towards.

Since she was being so co-operative, I snapped a few pictures before leaving her in peace. You’d think a “painted” turtle might have a more colourful shell, but it is just the margin of the carapace (upper shell) and the red and yellow striping of the legs and neck that give the turtle its name. The individual sections of the carapace are called scutes. The lower shell is called the plastron. Painted Turtles are noted for their habit of basking in the sun, sometimes lining up together on partially submerged logs. Northern turtles survive the winter by hibernating in the mud of ponds or streams. Painted turtles can survive without oxygen while hibernating for up to five months, longer than any other known air-breathing vertebrate.

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There are eight species of turtles in Ontario. The Painted Turtle is the most common and widespread species. Snapping Turtles (Chelydra serpentina) are still present in significant numbers but are vulnerable in some areas where populations were once stronger. The remaining 6 species (Blanding’s, Musk or Stinkpot, Map, Spotted, Spiny Softshell, and Wood) are all in trouble, listed as threatened or endangered. Threats to turtles include the loss of wetland habitat, road mortality, pollution, collection as pets, and predation. These pressures may soon overwhelm these important wetland ecosystem members.

If you see a turtle on the road, you can stop and help it across the road, or direct traffic until it makes it on its own. For more on helping turtles cross the road, check out Outside Up North. You can contribute to knowledge about turtle numbers and movement by reporting sightings to the Ontario Turtle Tally.

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