Thu. Dec 7th, 2023
Turtles: the last survivors

In today’s post, Discovery Leader Olivia Bennett discusses the impact of turtles on Grundy Lake Provincial Park, and vice versa!

When I started working at Grundy Lake, I was talking about turtles with our park superintendent when someone asked me, “Why do you care so much about the turtles here?”

The answer is simple: while the park has a healthy turtle population and quality habitat, other areas are not so lucky.

This is just the beginning of why we should all care about turtles.

water and ice

Our story begins more than 10,000 years ago, when the Georgian Bay/French River region was sculpted by thick layers of glacial ice and meltwater.

The ice smoothed the landscape and, in some places, “sanded” it with silty water beneath the ice, leaving depressions in the bedrock.

view of the lake with forest

The gaps filled with meltwater from the retreating glacier, creating the wetlands and inland lakes we see today.

This gave Grundy Lake a collection of habitats that many species call home. Including turtles!

A truly unique species

Did you know that turtles are the only animal that has a backbone AND a bone shell? The top shell is essentially the turtle’s ribcage on the outside!

collage of views of a turtle shell

Turtles are long-lived like us and live more than 80 years.

These ancient reptiles have been on Earth for 200 million years. They once lived alongside dinosaurs, their ability to adapt allowed them to survive events that wiped out other species.

Turtles have adapted and survived whatever nature has thrown at them since then.

How turtles contribute to the environment

Turtles as a group can be herbivorous (eat plants), carnivorous (carnivorous), or omnivorous (both plants and animals).

turtle shells in the ground

Turtles are both predator and prey species and occupy different levels in the food chain. They keep the population of species below them in the food web in check, while providing food for predatory species above them.

For example, turtle eggs are an important source of food for animals such as raccoons and skunks. In some years, nest predation may be 100%, but this is part of a natural cycle.

A female turtle will lay hundreds of eggs throughout her life. Only a few of those offspring need to survive to adulthood to maintain the population.

Turtle eggshells and undeveloped eggs also provide nutrients to the soils in which they were deposited, benefiting other plants and animals.

Turtles have between 20 and 40% bones. After a life well lived, they contribute important nutrients such as calcium and phosphorus to the environment.

snapping turtlesnapping turtle

Snapping turtles are great scavengers. They keep lakes and wetlands clean by “vacuuming” dead fish and animals that would otherwise rot.

Finally, turtles are fantastic helpers in seed germination and dispersal. Especially Blanding’s turtles, which travel great distances as they move from one wetland to another.

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In short, turtles play a key role in maintaining the balance of the ecosystem.

The ultimate survivor

Turtles love the Georgian Bay/French River area because it is less developed than other parts of Ontario. This means they can avoid their mortal enemies: roads and cars.

Development forces turtles to survive in a rapidly changing and increasingly dangerous world. They are resilient creatures that push forward through the obstacles they encounter.

The road may be an enemy to all wildlife, but to the turtle it is a formidable enemy like no other.

turtle on the road near the vehicle

Turtles cross roads every year, either to explore the surrounding habitat or so that female turtles can lay their eggs. A female turtle begins nesting between 10 and 20 years old.

It can nest every year for decades and often returns to the same location. That means many, many road crossings. His instinct to return to the same place is so strong that when new paths appear where there were none before, his turtle senses still tell him that he must get to the other side.

roadside turtle

The problem is that it crosses so slowly that, especially in busy places, it is at the mercy of passing vehicles. There is no way to backtrack in this quest to get to the other side, and the turtles won’t look both ways before crossing, whether it’s a gravel country road or Highway 400.

A turtle’s instinct to move all too often means its early end long before it has been replaced in the population by a surviving hatchling.

broken turtle shell

Unfortunately, road mortality and habitat loss are the biggest contributors to the turtles’ disappearance.

Females need to survive for the good of their species, and this ultimate survivor is losing the battle.

An indicator species

So what’s the big deal about losing a few turtles?

What would happen if we took turtles out of the ecosystem equation?

Two turtles sunbathing on a rock surrounded by water

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it would be disastrous. Like most reptiles, the presence of turtles is intrinsically linked to the health of an ecosystem.

They are what we call indicator or key species. The more indicator species that are present, the healthier the condition of the ecosystem.

Turtles are also an umbrella species. This means that if we protect turtles and their habitat, we also protect the habitat of hundreds of other species that live in the same ecological community.

A small turtle resting on a log partially submerged in water.Painted Turtle at Grundy Lake

Turtles are often overlooked as important members of their community and their value as a species is not fully understood. As turtle numbers slowly decline over time, lost ecosystem functions are not immediately noticeable.

Turtle Monitoring at Grundy Lake

Here at Grundy Lake we understand the importance of turtles.

turtle monitoring sign

Since 2014, park staff have been monitoring turtles and their mortality in the park. We also protect the nests to give the baby turtles a chance to survive.

The program began when a nesting Blanding’s turtle was hit by a vehicle on a park road.

We are wondering:

  • What do we know about the turtles in our park?
  • Where do they nest?
  • When do they cross the streets?
  • Are we doing enough to ensure they are protected?
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Our goal in provincial parks is clear: maintain ecological integrity or ecosystem health. The turtles are a big part of that.

We decided to make protecting turtles our mission. Since then, staff and volunteers have documented more than 500 turtle encounters along park trails.

Growth over the years

The Grundy Lake Turtle Monitoring Project has provided information on how and when the park’s turtles travel along roads and through campgrounds, particularly to nest Blanding’s turtles.

A turtle perched on a small rock surrounded by water, water lilies and reeds.

Our goal is also to educate visitors about the importance of turtles. That’s why we expanded the program to give park visitors the opportunity to contribute to monitoring studies by reporting their turtle sightings.

Park visitors are everywhere and a couple hundred eyes see better than one. You wouldn’t believe the difference it makes and we really appreciate it!

Where have the turtles gone?

Camper sightings were higher than ever over the past year.

This year our park’s opening date was delayed and I started as the park’s only naturalist.

A baby turtle emerging from a sandy area that has been protected with metal mesh.

I was looking for turtles, but I didn’t find any! I had to ask myself, was it me? If only he were the Flash, then maybe he’d find some turtles!

I kept wondering: where have all the turtles gone? What changed? Has this strange weather altered your rhythm?

Growing our turtle team

One week in late July, some campers called the park office to report baby turtles at their site.

After doing some research, I had a lightbulb moment. Campers reported baby turtles in an area that generally did not have many nesting turtles. Even more peculiar, the nest had hatched about a month earlier.

turtle hatchling

Weird or what?

This phone call made me realize how much the park depends on campers’ participation in the program (community science, as they call it).

I can only find one or two turtles a day. With the help of the campers, I get to see a lot more!

By reporting turtle sightings, campers learn why turtles need help, contribute to our understanding of these ancient animals, and increase the likelihood that hatchlings will survive.

The way I see it, it’s a win-win situation. You might think it’s just a call, but it can help give the turtles the fighting chance they deserve.

They have survived the test of time better than most animals out there. Let’s keep it that way!

A small turtle with a patterned shell and body swimming in front of the reeds.

If you are visiting Grundy Lake and see a turtle on land, join Team Turtle by calling us at (705) 346-1488 or the park at (705) 383-2286.

Injured turtles found outside the park can be reported to the Ontario Turtle Conservation Center (OTCC) at (705) 741-5000.

Even a severely injured turtle has a chance of surviving if you can treat it quickly enough.

Not in the park? You can still help!

There are still great ways to help our work to protect turtles, anywhere in the world.

A three-panel image of Ontario Parks turtle products.  The first panel shows a stuffed turtle, the second a woman wearing a teal shirt with an illustration of a turtle, and the third shows hands opening a blue water bottle speckled with a turtle.

Check out the Turtle Protection Collection in our online store.
Proceeds from these sales directly support turtle protection, research and education in Ontario Provincial Parks.

Donate to the Turtle Protection Project.
Your donation will be used to fund turtle research and protection projects, such as habitat restoration and nest preservation.

There are already many projects underway throughout the province!