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Turtles on the Move

June 15, 2022

By Christie Brodie, Interpretation Projects Coordinator, Royal Botanical Gardens.

With eight species, Ontario has the highest diversity of turtles in all of Canada. Sadly, they are all at risk. Slow and steady may win the race, but, for today’s turtles, life in the slow lane has put them at risk.

Turtles today are very similar to those who lived with the dinosaurs 200 million years ago. As the world keeps speeding up, these reptiles are falling behind. All turtle species found in Ontario are now in rapid decline. Turtles grow slowly and mature late, some not reaching reproductive age until their 20s. They’ve been unable to adapt to new threats, like habitat loss and cars, and unfortunately, thousands are hit by vehicles each year while searching for nesting sites. While typically found in wetlands, turtles will move into the surrounding upland habitat to nest in late spring and early summer, from late-May through July.

Here at RBG, we have four native turtle species (and one non-native species) that call our nature sanctuaries home. We are a designated Important Area for Reptiles and Amphibians (IMPARA), a national recognition of the value of our nature sanctuaries as habitat for these vulnerable species. We’re working hard to protect turtles through a variety of restoration projects, even tracking the movement of some of these turtles with radio transmitters

Radio-transmitters are glued onto a turtle’s shell. You can see the antenna from the radio-transmitter on this Blanding’s Turtle.
Radio-transmitters are glued onto a turtle’s shell. You can see the antenna from the radio-transmitter on this Blanding’s Turtle.
Biologists standing in a marsh holding a radio antenna
Signals from the transmitters allow our biologists to monitor turtle movements and find their nesting sites.

Why Track Turtles?

Despite a reputation for being slow, turtles can cover a lot of ground. Female turtles will move around a lot, sometimes multiple kilometres away from a water source as they search for the perfect place to nest. By tracking their movements, our biologists can then confirm if they’ve nested in a spot that is safe and protect the nest from predators if needed.

Snapping turtle digging a nest in a garden bed
This Snapping Turtle decided that the perfect spot to nest was in one of the soft garden beds at Laking Garden.

Turtle Species at RBG

We’re working hard to protect these important wetland residents. Meet the four native species of turtles that call RBG home:

Midland painted turtle sitting on a log amongst lily pads. This smaller turtle shell has a yellow belly, and red rim around the outside of the shell.

Midland Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta marginata)

Status in Canada: Special Concern

Named for the yellow and red stripes running from its head to the underside of its shell, the Midland Painted Turtle is often seen warming up in the sun by basking on logs and rocks. Midland Painted Turtles are the most commonly seen turtle across RBG.

Snapping turtle among plants in a garden

Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina)

Status in Ontario and Canada: Special Concern

The only turtle that is unable to fully tuck into their shell, Common Snapping Turtles are known for their defensive “snaps”. Their plastron (lower shell) is very small compared their overall body size leaving their strong jaw as their best defense when they feel threatened.

Northern map turtle on a rock, looking up

Northern Map Turtle (Graptemys geographica)

Status in Ontario: Special Concern

Northern Map Turtles have distinct markings on their shell and bodies that look like contour lines on a topographic map. Like most turtles, they are shy and head underwater when nervous or frightened.

Blandings turtle on a shoreline, looking up to showcase its bright yellow throat

Blanding’s Turtle (Emydoidea blandingii)

Status in Ontario: Threatened, Status in Canada: Endangered

Blanding’s Turtles are the most at risk of all the turtles that call RBG home. They are easily recognizable by their high dome-shaped carapace (upper shell) and their bright yellow chins.

There is one other turtle that you may see on a visit at RBG that isn’t from around here…

Red eared slider turtle on a log, bright red markings visible behind the eyes

Red-eared Slider (Trachemys scripta elegans)

Commonly found in pet stores around the world, the Red-eared Slider is native to the southern United States. It is now found in wetlands worldwide due to uninformed owners releasing their turtles into the wild. These released turtles threaten ecosystems and other species by spreading disease, and by taking over the food sources and basking and nesting sites of native turtles.

Turtle Conservation

Our turtle conservation efforts here at RBG have been very successful, with over 1,200 turtle hatchlings rescued in 2021. Now that’s something to shell-ebrate! If you want to support our turtle conservation work, consider symbolically adopting an RBG Blanding’s Turtle.

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