Head-start Release Day

On June 22nd, 48 of our head-start Blanding’s turtles were released into Rouge National Urban Park by our team members at the Toronto Zoo and Parks Canada. This is part of the effort to repopulate this threatened species within the GTA.

This marks the 8th year of releases for the Blanding’s Turtle Head-start Conservation Program. Since June 2014, over 500 turtles have been released into Rouge National Urban Park in an effort to save the species. When reintroduction efforts began in 2012, there were fewer than 10 individual Blanding’s turtles remaining in the Rouge Valley. So, the release of these juvenile turtles is vital to the recovery of this nationally and provincially threatened species.

Our work at the Toronto Zoo with the head-start Blanding’s turtles begins even before the eggs are hatched! Each year, the turtle eggs are collected, with permits, from a stable source population within Ontario. These eggs are brought back to the Toronto Zoo where they are incubated, hatched and raised for two years until they are the size of a four or five-year-old wild turtle! At this point, their shells are large enough to evade most predators such as raccoons, skunks, foxes, coyotes, and crows, giving them a better head-start in life than hatchlings. This head-start is especially important in urban areas like Rouge National Urban Park, where human activities like feeding wild animals or not properly disposing of garbage creates unnaturally high predator populations, called subsidized predators. The process of incubation, hatching, and the first year of growth can all be viewed by the public in the Americans Pavillion here at Your Toronto Zoo! 

Once they reach two years of age, they are released within specially picked locations in Rouge National Urban Park. Our team works with Parks Canada to select the most suitable locations prior to release day. After release, our work is certainly not over! Rain or shine, our Adopt-A-Pond field team keeps track of the released turtle’s movement and survival through radio telemetry. Tiny radio transmitters are attached to some of the released head-start’s shells. This is a painless process, and does not hinder the juveniles from normal activities. Since release day, our team has been going out twice a week to track these head-starts and record information about their location, habitat, movement pattern, and well-being in the wild. The data gathered helps to improve our understanding of survival and habitat use, and provides critical information for park managers to create or restore suitable wetlands where aquatic animals can thrive.  

The Blanding’s turtle is listed as a threatened species provincially, nationally and globally. Although it is a long-lived species with a life span of up to 80+ years, they have declined in recent years due to a variety of factors, many of which are human induced. Some examples are habitat loss and fragmentation caused by urban development and drainage of wetlands for agriculture, road mortality, and increased levels of predation due to subsidized predator populations. 

What can you do at home to help your local turtle species? 

  • If you see a turtle crossing the road, help it cross! Often, you can direct a turtle off the road without picking it up, but watch this video (linkhttps://youtu.be/rBJd1y6wCAk) for handling techniques!  
  • You can share your observations of turtles through Turtle Tally on our Adopt-A-Pond app or website: Toronto Zoo | Adopt A Pond – Citizen Science. We share these observations with our partners to help identify areas of high population density and support mitigation projects across Ontario.  
  • Keeping wetlands and other ecosystems free from pollution and garbage 
  • Never feeding wild animals and properly securing your garbage and food waste in animal-proof bins