March of the Turtles With Our Blanding’s Headstarts

Nina, Turtle Helper, Dunbarton High School Co-op and Shannon, Wetland Biologist

Nina, Turtle Helper, Dunbarton High School Co-op and Shannon, Wetland Biologist

With our warm March weather, Shannon, our Wetland Biologist, and her turtle tracking assistant Nina, have been eager to see if our hibernating headstart juvenile Blanding’s turtles (Emydoidea blandingii) have started waking up.  Ontario turtles will enter hibernation when water temperatures drop and daylight hours shorten, they will start to wake up again once the ice starts melting. Most of our Ontario turtles sleep at the bottom of their wetland home, below the frost line where water does not freeze. Turtles need to pick the ideal spot to hibernate if they want to survive the freezing temperatures of winter. By radio-tracking the turtles, Shannon and Nina can see if they are starting to come out of their winter slumber by slowly moving around and then finally surfacing to bask in the nice warm sunshine.

“Right now it looks they they’re still asleep.” says Shannon, “We will just have to keep checking in on them in hopes of catching their early seasonal movements”

The Blanding’s turtle is listed as a threatened species both provincially and federally. Like most turtles, they are hardest hit by predators in the first years of their life! Nest and hatchling predation is high, and the success rate for these tiny turtles reaching adulthood is about 1 in 100, and that’s without human the induced threats, like being hit by a car when crossing roads.

Turtle headstarting offers a method for subsidizing small populations. It generally involves the collection and incubation of eggs, raising the hatchlings for a period of time, and then their release when they are big enough to deter most predators. The main goal of headstarting is to increase the survival rate of young turtles to hopefully have them become breeding adults.

Toronto Zoo, in partnership with Rouge National Urban Park, has undertaken a headstarting program which released its first 10 headstarted Blanding’s turtles in 2014. The turtles were released in Rouge National Urban Park and each was outfitted with a radio transmitter for monitoring its movements. The young turtles are tracked regularly throughout the year so we can monitor their movements and learn more about the habitats they choose to live in.

Blanding’s turtles are considered a “landscape species” because they use a variety of different wetland habitats throughout their life cycle, including swamps, marshes, ponds and vernal pools. Promoting and protecting Blanding’s turtle habitat throughout the duration of this headstarting program benefits other native turtles, mammals, birds, amphibians and fish that use the same wetland complexes. This results in a healthier ecosystem that also benefits people.

The public can help too! You can help turtles by avoiding their nesting areas and by contacting the authorities if you see unusual behaviour in Rouge National Urban Park or anywhere else in Ontario. (Crime Stoppers or to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry tip line (1-877-TIPS-MNR, 1-877-847-7667)

You can also report any turtle sightings to the Ontario Turtle Tally; a programme that uses reports from people like you to identify and target areas where turtle conservation is needed. In this way you become a citizen scientist and help save turtles!

Hope to see you soon sleepy turtles!

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For more information about Toronto Zoo conservation programs visit http://www.torontozoo.com/conservation/

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