Turtles have been around for a long time and are the subject of many myths and legends. Unfortunately, many turtles are at risk of extinction unless we change our ways. Earth Rangers is giving you the chance to make a difference for freshwater turtles in Canada. Sign up for a Bring Back the Wild campaign to protect the Blanding’s turtle!
The word “turtle” refers to reptiles in the order Testudines, including tortoises, terrapins and (of course) turtles! There are about 330 turtle species found all over the world, on every continent except Antarctica.
Most turtles are omnivorous, meaning they eat plants and animals. Blanding’s turtles like to eat insect larvae, freshwater snails, leeches, small crustaceans, tadpoles, frogs and carrion (dead animals). They will also eat berries and plants.
When it comes to being preyed upon by other animals, Blanding’s turtles always have a plan. If they are in a wetland, they will hide deep in the water for several hours. If they are on land, they will hide inside their shell when threatened by a predator. If they can’t hide, they can defend themselves by biting.
DID YOU KNOW…Most Blanding’s turtles live to be 80 years old, but some can live to be 100!
What Does the Blanding’s Turtle Look Like?
One of the things that makes a turtle a turtle is its shell. There are two parts to a turtle shell: the part that covers the turtle’s back or dorsal side (known as a carapace) and the part that covers the turtle’s belly or ventral side (known as the plastron). Shells can be different sizes, shapes, colours and have different patterns. The carapace of the Blanding’s turtle is dome-shaped (like an army helmet), is mostly dark green/black-brown and covered in yellow spots and flecks. The plastron is yellow with big dark blotches.
This medium-sized freshwater turtle (measuring about 20 cm) has a bright yellow chin and throat. Their yellow chin and throat is one of the easiest ways to identify a Blanding’s turtle. What really adds to its cheerful appearance though is that it looks so happy. In fact, thanks to the shape of its jaw, the Blanding’s turtle always looks like it has a smile on its face.
Where Does the Blanding’s Turtle Live?
The Blanding’s turtle is a North American freshwater reptile. In Canada, they can be found around the Great Lakes/St. Lawrence River region of Ontario. Small, isolated populations occur in Southwestern Quebec and Southwestern Nova Scotia.
Blanding’s turtles have certain habitat requirements, and those requirements differ depending on the turtle’s age and the season.
They spend their springs and summers in vegetated wetlands, ponds, shallow lakes and rivers with vegetated shorelines. During this time, they are often seen basking on rocks or logs, especially on cool mornings. Once the turtles are about 20 years old and are ready to reproduce, these vegetated aquatic habitats will also be where they mate in late April or early May.
After mating, females will travel up to 1 km (and sometimes even farther) from their spring/summer habitat to lay their eggs. Nesting habitat can include sandy beaches and shorelines along lakes and ponds, roadsides or gravel roads. Once females have laid their eggs they return to their wetland, pond or shallow lake. Turtles do not provide care to their young; when baby turtles hatch they are on their own.
The eggs hatch in late September or early October. At this time of year it is difficult to find food so the hatchlings stay in their eggs as long as possible. By late October it’s time for the hatchlings (baby turtles in their first winter) to find somewhere to spend the winter. Adult and young turtles, as well as the hatchlings hibernate underwater by burying themselves deep in soft muck in permanent wetlands, ponds or lakes. Burying themselves deep in muck protects the turtles from severe freezing and water loss, but Blanding’s turtles seem somewhat unique among other freshwater turtles as they can handle some of their body tissue freezing during the winter. Some scientists think that Blanding’s turtles may also hibernate on land by burying themselves deep in moist soil.
The next spring, when the water warms up, the cycle starts over again. Like other reptiles, turtles are ectothermic which means their body temperature is similar to that of their surroundings because they cannot regulate their body temperature internally. As a result, Blanding’s turtles hibernate during the winter and are inactive until the water warms up.
What’s Threatening the Blanding’s Turtle?
Freshwater turtles aren’t just in trouble across the country; they are in trouble around the globe. About 40% of all freshwater turtles worldwide are threatened, with seven of the eight Ontario species endangered, threatened or of special concern.
In Ontario, major conservation threats for Blanding’s turtles include habitat loss and fragmentation, the illegal pet trade and egg predation. These threats, along with the turtles’ slow reproductive rates, are having catastrophic effects on Blanding’s turtle populations. Let’s take a look at each of them in more detail.
Habitat Loss and Fragmentation
Habitat loss and fragmentation are perhaps the greatest threats facing Blanding’s turtles. Much of their habitat is being destroyed by land development and industrialization. For a species like the Blanding’s turtle, which has very particular habitat requirements and can’t move great distances, this can have serious impacts on their ability to survive. After all, Blanding’s turtles can’t just live in any wetland, pond or lake.
Roads are a particular problem for Blanding’s turtles because they often cut through the turtles’ habitat. Females attempting to cross roads to reach nesting habitat are often injured or killed by cars. As more and more development occurs, it brings more people and more road traffic to the area. The chance of a turtle being hit by a car rises, as does the risk of predation and being collected for the pet trade.
Illegal Pet Trade
Remember how we mentioned that the Blanding’s turtle always looks like it’s smiling? It’s this happy appearance mixed with their bright colours that make them a big target for the pet trade. As much as they might make a cute pet, collecting Blanding’s turtles to be sold as pets is having an extreme impact on their population numbers. Often, poachers capture turtles on the way to their nesting sites because this is when the turtles are more active and easier to find. Removing a pregnant turtle from the wild can be devastating. Any turtle taken out of the wild can’t help the population grow, but taking pregnant females removes not only a breeding female but all of its young too.
What can you do if you see a Blanding’s turtle at a pet store or market? Report it to the Ministry of Natural Resources.
Humans are not the only predators that Blanding’s turtles have to worry about. Turtle eggs are often a target for hungry raccoons, foxes, coyotes and skunks.
How You Can Help
Given such low numbers in the wild, Blanding’s turtles are hard to spot. This is why it’s really important that, if you see one, you let the Toronto Zoo or Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) know where you saw it. Including the GPS coordinates of the location in your sighting is ideal. Turtle scientists at the Toronto Zoo or MNR keep track of turtle sightings and their locations in special databases and use this information to help protect turtles at risk by identifying areas of concern where turtles are present.
Also, make sure you keep your eye out for turtles while travelling by car. Turtles are hit all the time so watch out for turtles crossing roads or being along roadsides from May to October.
Sign Up for a Bring Back the Wild Campaign
Earth Rangers, in partnership with the Toronto Zoo, is working to protect the Blanding’s turtle and we need your help! By starting a Bring Back the Wild campaign for the Blanding’s turtle you will be fundraising to support conservation efforts and education to help freshwater turtles in Ontario. Here’s how your campaign will help the Blanding’s turtle:
- Assist with the Toronto Zoo’s head-starting conservation project. We will collect and incubate up to 55 Blanding’s turtle eggs annually from at risk nests and care for the young turtles until they are large enough to survive on their own
- Educate kids and their families about threats facing freshwater turtles in Ontario and the importance of wetlands
Visit Bring Back the Wild™ to start your campaign to protect the Blanding’s turtle.
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A Conservation Project With
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