Reptiles on the Road

by Gord Ellis | July 16, 2014


I’ve always had a soft spot for turtles. As a kid, I had several sliders as pets, and kept them in those cheesy little plastic ponds with a green plastic palm tree. There was something fascinating about this creature that carried its house everywhere it went. As a teen, I spent a fair bit of time catching snapping turtles by hand in a pond. Perhaps not the safest thing to do, in retrospect, but the prehistoric nature of the snapper, and the way it fit into its environment so perfectly, was fascinating.

It has been many years since I’ve had a turtle as a pet, or purposely tried to catch one, but they remain a passion of mine. Last year, at the Geraldton Walleye Classic fishing tournament in northern Ontario, I noticed something unexpected. As my fishing partner and I were driving just north of Geraldton, we saw a dark, shiny object on the road. “That’s a painted turtle,” I said, as we gave the reptile a wide berth. “I didn’t know they were found this far north.”

The next evening, driving back on that same piece of highway, we saw another turtle, this one walking on the shoulder. Sadly, a little further along, we saw the remains of a turtle that had found itself a little too close to the traffic. It had been crushed by the wheel of a car. These long-lived creatures have neither the speed nor agility to avoid becoming roadkill, yet sometimes just a tiny manoeuvre on a driver’s part is all that’s needed to avoid them. Of course, not every driver sees or expects to see a turtle on the road. For most of the year, it’s an unusual sighting in Ontario. The odds are the turtles we saw near Geraldton were females heading from a swamp to a sandy area to lay their eggs.

I’ve seen this several times over the years, and it’s usually between late May and early July. It’s a little earlier in southern Ontario, where the temperature is more moderate. Early one May, while on a turkey hunt near Coldwater, I recall moving a turtle off a road near a forested area. As we drove a little further down the road, there was actually a turtle crossing sign. That was something this northern boy had never seen.

I can recall staying at a lodge west of Thunder Bay several years ago and seeing painted turtles all over the property. They were laying eggs in the beach sand and on the grass, likely in the same spots their ancestors had used for many hundreds of years, before lakeside development. The lodge owners did their best to let people know what was going on, and to fence off the nests, but skunks were digging them up and eating the eggs. It was heartbreaking. Luckily, turtles are a long-lived creature, and can lay eggs many times over a 40-year lifespan.

Despite the nearly 90% loss of turtle nests to skunks, foxes, and even dogs, nature has a way of making sure a few baby turtles survive. However, habitat loss and road deaths are major concerns for turtle survival around the globe. In southern Ontario alone, it is estimated that about 70% of wetlands have been drained, the rest are often intersected by roads. This creates even more danger for the turtle.

Since turtles are cold-blooded, temperature plays a major role in their lives. Air temperature even determines the gender of the turtle at birth. Years ago, I was told that turtle eggs laid during summers of 22 to 26 degrees Celsius – on average – tend to hatch out as males. Colder summer temperatures make the babies more liable to be female. As you might expect, there are a lot more female turtles than males, especially in Northern Ontario, 80 to 85% females. Talk about a man shortage.

I’ve noticed over the years that there are a lot more painted turtles around sandy, shallow “kettle lakes” in northern Ontario than those surrounded by pre-Cambrian rock. Since many of these kettle lakes are also associated with upwelling springs, they are frequently stocked with brook trout. Many early season brook trout trips have included seeing painted turtles on logs. As soon as the ice goes off the lakes, those cold-blooded creatures start worshipping the sun. They will pile on top of each other like it’s a rugby match, each one trying to get closer to the radiant heat. Many of my absolute favourite brook trout lakes also have lots of turtles. Maybe that’s why I have such a soft spot for these ancient-looking reptiles.

If you see a turtle on the road, please be extra careful not to hit it. If it’s safe, you might want to pull over and give it a hand getting across. I don’t recommend doing this on a busy highway — for obvious reasons — but there are countless side roads that see little traffic and many turtles. Ontario turtles such as the painted, blandings, northern map, and spotted turtle can be easily grabbed with 2 hands and safely moved to the shoulder or nearby woods, but you might want to use a shovel or board to usher a large female snapper along. In any case, minimize direct contact. Turtles are beautiful, remarkable creatures, and are an important part of Ontario‘s natural world. Let’s slow down on the road, and let the turtle win this race.

A version of this article was first published in the April 2014 issue of Ontario OUT OF DOORS.


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