| May 08, 2008

Feature Article - May 8, 2008

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Feature Article - May 8, 2008 Turtles: "Older than Dirt"By Wilma Kenny

They watched the dinosaurs come and go: today’s turtles are direct descendants of one of the oldest creatures on earth. Local conservationist Matt Ellerbeck’s lifelong fascination with these animals was certainly evident during the turtle-talk he gave last week in Sydenham. He was sponsored by South Frontenac’s Environmental committee, which has recently purchased another seven sets of "Turtle Crossing" signs for the township.

Matt noted that Southern Ontario has the greatest diversity of turtle species in Canada, and that this is also one of the areas where turtle survival is most threatened. His goal is to teach us what we can do to help protect these gentle prehistoric reptiles, for only now, after 200 million years, are turtles in danger of becoming extinct. Humans, both directly and indirectly, are turtles’ greatest enemies.

The three chief contributing factors are: loss of habitat through destruction of wetlands, contaminates from industrial waste and sewage, and death on the highways.

Why does the turtle cross the road?

In spring and summer, but mainly in June, turtles cross roads from the swamps and wetlands where most of them live to reach the warm, sandy spots where they need to lay their eggs. We can help by moving them off the road in the direction they are headed. The small shiny-shelled painted turtles with bright orange markings on head and sides can be safely picked up by grasping them across the top of the shell: hold them at arm’s length, for they often urinate when distressed! If you find a small, dull coloured turtle with a high domed shell, and it smells really bad, you’ve been very lucky to have encountered a rare, usually nocturnal musk turtle, or stinkpot. Wash your hands and let Matt know the location of your discovery.


The other turtle most likely to be found on the roads in June is the snapper. Snappers can grow shells more than a foot long, and weigh as much as 45 lbs. They are long-lived and look ancient, with huge heads and jagged-edged, mossy shells. Their long tails have a saw-toothed ridge running down the middle. They have sharp beak-like mouths and powerful jaws. (A biologist once commented to me: "The first snap is random: the second is well-aimed.")

Contrary to common myths and their fearsome appearance, snappers are not dangerous to swimmers, game fish or wildfowl. They are shy creatures. Much of their diet is aquatic plants, supplemented by slugs, leeches, crayfish, water beetles, frogs and small fish. Although considered by some to be a delicacy, it is inadvisable to eat turtles, due to the increasingly high concentrations of industrial and human contaminants in their flesh.

On land they are vulnerable and can be dangerous, for they are relatively slow-moving and have very small undershells that offer almost no protection. They can lash out half the length of their bodies to inflict a serious bite. Moving a snapper off the road is challenging. Picking it up by the tail is apt to damage its spine. If you grasp it with both hands at the back of the shell, you’re out of reach of its bite, but have to beware the long sharp hind claws. And it’s not easy to carry a heavy, squirming creature at arm’s length... Sometimes they can be encouraged to snap onto a stout stick, and then be dragged off the road. Because snappers often try to cross the road from the creek at the foot of my garden, I favour the medium-sized plastic snow shovel method. It’s relatively easy to slide a wide shovel under the snapper and either carry or drag it to safety. Don’t expect gratitude: the turtle will snap and hiss. Just leave the snow shovel in your car until the end of June, and you’ll be prepared.

Turtle Crossing Signs

Contact South Frontenac Township, Councillor Del Stowe, or any other member of the Environmental Committee if you know of a turtle-crossing area that might be a good spot for signs. (Township office, 613-376-3027: Del Stowe, 613-374-2742.)

For further information about turtles, check out Matt Ellerbeck’s web site: http://www.freewebs.com/turtleconservationist/

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