Its mid June in the Land Between. The evening temperature is pleasant, and I might even say I was comfortable sitting in this lawn chair on the side of the highway, if it weren’t for the bugs! Black-flies and mosquitoes swarm my head and unprotected arms. I pull on my trusty bug jacket and settle back into my seat. I’m watching a show that many people have not had the pleasure of seeing; a Blanding’s Turtle is laying her nest. I’m watching her from the other side of the road through my binoculars, ensuring her safety. This is a vulnerable time for her and I am protecting her from oncoming cars. A study in Southern Ontario showed that approximately 2.7% of cars will intentionally aim for reptiles on the road (Ashley et al. 2007). I won’t let that happen to this momma! She rocks slowly back and forth as she works to dig a hole. She has been working for about an hour now. I wonder if she’ll start laying before its dark! Like many other turtles, this mother is very methodical when it comes to nesting.
A gravid (pregnant) turtle will travel as much as 7.5 kilometres to find the perfect spot to lay their eggs, and many will return to the same place year after year (others will travel within 2km of this site over the years) (Congdon et al. 2008). Some Blanding’s Turtles nest as far as 1 kilometre from the nearest water (Congdon et al. 2008). This turtle has chosen to nest in front of a small marsh, but that marsh that sits behind her may not be where she resides the rest of the year. I wonder how far this lady has traveled today. The traffic on the highway zooms past me. How many roads did she have to cross to get here safely?
I check on the turtle through my binoculars again. Blanding’s Turtles can take up to 2.5 hours to complete the nesting process. To my excitement, there is a change in behaviour! She has finished digging. Her neck slowly extends out, showing off a beautiful yellow colour. Then she tucks her head in. This tells me that she is finally laying eggs! After each egg, she rocks sideways, catching the egg with one leg and placing it carefully into the nest. She will repeat this process, laying on average 10-15 eggs (Ernst et al. 1994).
I am working as part of crew in The Land Between, which, under a special wildlife permit, will research turtles (all of which are disappearing in Ontario), and which will also help give next generations a boost by incubating eggs.
It is nearly dark now, as I watch her lay her eggs. I wait for her to finish, adrenaline building because the next part is the most fun! As she reaches the end of laying, I start to move. I creep through the bushes behind her on my hands and knees. I slowly move up behind her so that I can see her hind legs. I ensure she cannot see me, as the last thing I want to do is spook her off the nest. I have purposefully been watching through my binoculars from a distance up to this point. I watch as she lays her final egg and begins to bury her nest. Before she can, I pick her up, and hand her to my partner who is ready with equipment to take her morphometrics. He will weigh her and take some measurements of her shell. Meanwhile, I get back to the nest. Since I didn’t let her bury her eggs it makes my job much easier. Blanding’s Turtles are very good at camouflaging their nests. I carefully excavate the nest. These eggs will be transported to an incubator where they will be safe from predators such as raccoons and foxes that love to eat them (Harding 1997). They will also be safe from heavy machinery such as graders, as well as environmental damage such as temperature fluctuations and flooding (Riley et al., unpublished data, Edge unpublished data).
We will return the hatchlings to this area when they emerge in 56-133 days (Gillingwater and Brooks 2001). This will protect them from the road where hatchlings are at higher risk for mortality after emerging from roadside nests (Gillingwater 2013). This mother’s legacy will hopefully live on, and all her travelling and hard work will not have been in vain. While we are helping by ensuring that not as many nests are lost and more hatchlings emerge, the recruitment rate (the replacement rate) for adult turtles is still extremely low because only a small fraction (less than 1%) of the hatchlings will survive the masses of predators and find the right conditions to reach adulthood.
We release the tired turtle and watch her saunter into the ditch, and out of sight. I think to myself how lucky I am to have such a rewarding job, bug bites and all!
If you are interested in becoming a volunteer nest sitter, please visit the Turtle Guardians website for more information.
Submitted by Grace Wiley, Conservation Technician
Ashley, E.P., and J.T. Robinson. 1996. Road mortality of amphibians, reptiles and other wildlife on the Long Point Causeway, Lake Erie, Ontario. Canadian Field Naturalist 110:403-412.
Congdon, J.D., T.E. Graham, T.B. Herman, J.W. Lang, M.J. Pappas, and B.J. Brecke. 2008. Emydoidea blandingii (Holbrook 1838) Blanding’s turtle. In: Rhodin, A.G.J., P.C.H. Pritchard, P.P van Dijk, R.A. Saumure, K.A. Buhlmann, and J.B. Iverson. (Eds.). Conservation Biology of Freshwater Turtles and Tortoises: A Compilation Project of the IUCN/SSC Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group. Chelonian Research Monographs No. 5, pp. 015.1-015.12.
Edge, C.B. Unpublished data.
Ernst, C.H., R.W. Barbour, and J.E. Lovich. 1994. Turtles of the United States and Canada. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington D.C.
Gillingwater, S.D. 2013. Unpublished report submitted to Canadian Wildlife Service. 48 pp.
Gillingwater, S.D., and R.J. Brooks. 2001. A selective herpetofaunal survey, inventory and biological research study of Rondeau Provincial Park. Report to the International Fund for Animal Welfare and Endangered Species Recovery Fund (World Wildlife Fund).
Riley, J., M. Keevil, P. Moldowan and J. Litzgus. Unpublished data.
Harding, J.H. 1997. Amphibians and reptiles of the Great Lakes Region. The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor. 378 pp.