Ontario's turtle species are in trouble - while it used to be that over half of our native turtle populations were endangered or threatened, in April of this year the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada designated the midland painted turtle as Special Concern. This means that all of Ontario’s eight turtle species are now at risk of disappearing from the province. And, when you learn a little bit about the unique life history and reproductive strategy of turtles, it's easy to see why this is happening.
According to the Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre, turtle biology greatly differs from other species of wildlife in two key respects: other species mature more quickly and their young have a higher survival rate. The snapping turtle, for example, takes nearly 20 years to reach reproductive age and needs to lay 1400 eggs before one offspring will reach maturity. This process can take up to 50 years. Thus, turtles have less opportunity to replace themselves in the population over a shorter time.
Now, before we judge turtles by thinking they should be reproducing faster, it's really important to note that this strategy has served them well for literally hundreds of millions of years. Turtles are reptiles that belong to the order Testudines characterized by a special bony or cartilaginous shell developed from their ribs which acts as a shield, protecting them from the jaws of predators and from the icy temperatures of winter. The earliest known members of this group date from 220 million years ago, which makes turtles one of the oldest reptile groups and a more ancient group than even snakes or crocodilians.
So what's changed in their environment to cause species endangerment? One word: humans (obviously, what else were you expecting?). Humans have disrupted the turtle survival strategy in two major ways: through destroying their habitats and the introduction of roadways and cars. We've put our roads down right smack dab in between where the turtles live and where they have to travel in order to find mates and lay those precious, precious eggs. So here's the crux of the problem: we have a slow-moving animal that has to cross a road with fast-moving vehicles racing over top of it and when an adult gets hit, that's a major blow to the survival of the species due to the two factors mentioned above. You try being a successful species in those conditions.
The slow rate of maturity and lower survival rate of their young also means that unlike in other species, conservation programs specifically aimed at rescuing, healing and releasing injured turtles are extremely effective in helping to sustain turtle populations. Enter the work of the Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre who do just that: they take in injured turtles, miraculously fix them up and then release those healed up beauties back into the wild. You have not lived yet until you've scrolled through their Instagram feed - these turtles are ridiculously cute.
Wondering what you can do to take action for turtles?
Use our Water Docs Where-You-Live program to host your own community screening of Fix and Release, a film from Toronto filmmaker Scott Dobson who beautifully captures the work done by the Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre. This is an informative and inspiring film that will make anyone fall in love with turtles - and move them to do something to help protect them.