Playing Mother Nature with the Blanding’s turtle
By Mark McNeil
They don't move too fast, but they go pretty far.
And that's a big part of the reason why Blanding's turtles are in such peril in Cootes Paradise and other wetland areas of Royal Botanical Gardens property.
Females like to ramble long distances before laying eggs and that can get them run over by automobiles, scooped by kids looking for a pet, or facing other dangers.
Consequently, numbers of the reptile listed as threatened by the province have severely declined to a point that RBG biologists estimate there are only four or five in all of Cootes Paradise and maybe another 20 in the Grindstone Creek (Hendrie Valley) area.
Faced with the real prospect of losing the species from the area altogether, RBG workers have decided to play Mother Nature using radio telemetry and incubation.
This spring, they outfitted three reproductive Blanding's turtle females with radio transmitters and, after weeks of tracking, were able to locate two nests left by two of the mothers. One nest had 10 eggs and the other 13.
So they gathered up the 23 fragile eggs and put them in an incubator in the RBG Centre building to be carefully monitored over the next several weeks.
"We want to make the conditions ideal for them to hatch," says Kathryn Harrison, species at risk biologist with the RBG.
In the wild, she says, the eggs would have faced all kinds of hazards from cold weather, to trampling to being eaten by raccoons or foxes.
The eggs in the incubator should hatch in late August and early September. The RBG is hoping that, under these optimum conditions, all the eggs will hatch.
After a week, they'll be released back into the wilds of Cootes Paradise, with fingers crossed that a good number of them will survive accidents and predators and make it into adulthood.
"Life is tough for baby turtles," says Harrison. "They can find themselves in all kinds of problems."
Female turtles, she says, will need to live 15 to 25 years before they are capable of producing eggs, and that's the big goal of the effort to make the species sustainable into the future.
Asked why the RBG doesn't simply stock its marshes with Blanding's turtles raised in a laboratory, Harrison says, "the turtles we want to be in this area are turtles that are from this area."
It's far better, she says, to reproduce turtles "whose genetics have adapted for life in this area."
As well, she says, moving turtles from another area to here, could transport diseases with them.
The Blanding's turtle:
Is a medium-sized turtle (reaching up to 27 centimetres in length) with a bright yellow throat and chin. Different to other local turtles, with flatter shells, the Blanding's turtle has a more rounded dome shaped like an army helmet;
Lives in shallow water, usually in wetlands or shallow lakes with lots of water plants. They hibernate in mud at the bottom of water bodies from late October until the end of April;
• Is listed by the province as threatened, meaning it is "likely to become endangered if steps are not taken to address factors threatening it."