By Nate Smelle
Published April 12 2018
Members of the Haliburton Highlands Field Naturalists have scheduled an exciting presentation to remind people that turtles in Haliburton County are awakening and crawling from their hibernation sites.
On the evening of Tuesday April 17 the field naturalists will be hosting Algonquin Park naturalist David LeGros. For the past four years LeGros has been responsible for heading up all the educational programming at Algonquin Provincial Park as the natural heritage education specialist.
This summer he said the park will have three to seven programs each day that are designed for kids adults and families. In many of these programs LeGros plans to impart his knowledge of and passion for what he calls “the park’s living dinosaur” – the snapping turtle.
As a frequent contributor to several of the park’s publications and a field technician studying amphibians and salamanders LeGros has worked closely with many of Algonquin’s researchers studying this prehistoric-looking species.
Having been enamored with snapping turtles since his childhood LeGros is excited to have the opportunity to share what he has learned through his experiences.
“The snapping turtle is the embodiment of a living dinosaur” he said.
“They are just amazing creatures and the more I learn about them the more amazing I think they are. For example they can live a very very long time and they can travel surprisingly long distances for an animal that many people think just lives in a lake or a pond. Females will often travel nine kilometres just to get to a good nesting site.”
LeGros said that currently snapping turtles along with six of the other eight turtles found in Ontario are listed as species at risk. Being both an aquatic and a terrestrial species he said snapping turtles face numerous threats.
According to LeGros habitat loss and fragmentation along with road mortality are some of the biggest dangers to the species. With females of the species being more at risk of being killed due to human activity this puts the entire species at risk of going extinct he said.
“It’s basically a miracle [that] any of them survive as an adult” LeGros said.
“If an adult female turtle lays 1600 eggs in her lifetime maybe one or two will survive to become adults. Between predators digging up their eggs their young getting eaten by any variety of animals or not surviving the first couple of winters by picking a bad hibernation spot it really is incredible that any of them get to become adults.”
As scavengers LeGros said snapping turtles tend to be the cleaners of ecosystems where they live. This along with their size (biomass) makes them an essential piece of the puzzle composing the overall health of an ecosystem.
“As a big adult turtle very few things actually eat them but as eggs and as baby turtles they have a lot of predators” he said.
“Foxes ravens raccoons and skunks will dig up the eggs while frogs snakes fish and other aquatic animals will eat the small ones. When they die especially when one dies of natural causes in a water body there are a lot of things like aquatic animals insects and even bacteria that scavenge off their carcass. Nothing in nature goes to waste and it all gets used up so they are very important. Snapping turtles eat a lot of aquatic vegetation as well as dead or diseased things in the pond.”
Because of their name and their tendency to snap at people and other potential predators that get too close LeGros said snapping turtles have ended up with an undeserved bad reputation. Not an aggressive species by nature he said the snapping turtle will only strike out of self-defence.
“They have a tiny little shell below that doesn’t really protect much of the underside so they think that we’re trying to do them harm” he explained.
“They’re just trying to tell us to stay back and find something else to eat because they’re not going without a fight. They really just want to be left alone and that’s what they are telling us.”
While his presentation is primarily focused on snapping turtle biology and the research taking place on the species in Algonquin Park LeGros said he also intends to speak about the many turtle conservation efforts underway throughout Ontario. Though people tend to think that scientific discoveries are only taking place elsewhere he said there is a significant amount of important research on snapping turtles being conducted in Algonquin Park that the public should know about.
“Snapping turtles represent what is good about our area; lakes and forests productive habitats and healthy ecosystems” he said.
“A decline in turtles indicates problems and usually problems caused by people. These challenges are not only faced by turtles but by all wildlife and wild places – nothing in nature lives in isolation. By conserving turtles we protect habitat and processes that are good for everything that lives there including people.”
LeGros believes that the more people know about wildlife and the natural world the more likely they are to appreciate and protect them. He is hopeful that his presentation will help to open people’s eyes to how biodiversity is interconnected and how all species are dependent on each other and the integrity the ecosystem.
“The more we break this integrity the less things there are that can actually live here” LeGros said.
“Every place in the world is basically unique and we’re at risk of losing many of these things by continuously breaking off little pieces. It goes quickly. It takes thousands of years or more for a place to become what it is and it can take a matter of days to lose it. We all think about endangered species in the rainforest are places like that but we have species that are facing very serious threats right here in Ontario. There are things that each of us can do about that in our day-to-day lives right here in Ontario. While it’s good to send funds to help distant conservation projects there are things we can do to help species right here in our hometown.”
Admission to the presentation is $5 and it will take place at the Haliburton Highlands Museum beginning at 7 p.m. on Tuesday April 17. For more information visit: www.hhfn.ca.