Turtles are beautiful, diverse, and ancient animals that have walked the earth for more than 200 million years!

Despite having outlived the dinosaurs, turtles are now one of the most at-risk groups of vertebrates on earth and are experiencing population declines worldwide. Out of the 356 known turtle species, 61% are listed as threatened or already extinct by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). These declines are also occurring in Canada, with almost all of our 8 native turtle species federally designated as species at risk. Home to all 8 species, Ontario boasts the highest turtle species diversity within Canada; however, 7 of 8 species are considered at risk provincially.

A northern map turtle found on a road in Southern Ontario, one of the eight species found in the province. Photo: Candace Park

Given that turtles have survived on earth relatively unchanged for millions of years, it seems unfathomable that they are now threatened with extinction all around the world. The reason for this is that many of the main drivers of turtle declines are anthropogenic (caused by human activity), especially in densely populated regions. This includes:

  • The destruction and fragmentation of wetland habitats in favour of development and road networks
  • Road mortality due to vehicle collisions, especially for females when travelling on land to reach their nesting sites
  • Increased predator densities associated with urban environments that prey on nests (e.g., racoons and skunks); and
  • Poaching for the food and pet trades

Example of a typical turtle crossing road sign in Canada, alerting drivers to watch for turtles on the road. Photo credit: “Turtle Crossing Sign” by formulanone, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

The life history strategies of turtles rely on adults surviving for a long time. Turtles reach maturity at a late age, with some species requiring up to 20 years before they can reproduce. Eggs and juveniles are vulnerable to a wide variety of predators, and it is estimated that less than 1 in 100 eggs laid will reach adulthood. As a result, it can take decades for an adult to be replaced in the population. Many of the anthropogenic threats to turtles listed above remove adults from populations at unsustainable rates that the low survival rates of eggs and juveniles cannot keep up with, which can lead to severe population declines. However, not all hope is lost for turtles in Canada. There are many ways that we can all contribute to turtle conservation and help prevent declines of our local turtle populations.

Keep an eye out for turtles on the road.
This is especially important during nesting season (late-May to early-July) when females travel on land to lay their eggs. When safe to do so, always move turtles off the road in the direction that they were going. If you find an injured turtle, contact a local wildlife rehabilitator, vet, or conservation organization that can help to get it medical attention ASAP. In Ontario, contact the Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre.

Volunteer with a local conservation project.
There are numerous projects, especially in Ontario, that work to improve the survival of turtle nests by deploying nest protectors, collecting and incubating eggs laid in precarious locations, headstarting hatchlings, and increasing public education and awareness. There are a variety of ways to contribute to these efforts and during nesting season, projects often need all the help they can get! Check out the Ontario Turtle Conservation Network for a map of turtle projects to find one in your area.

Prioritize habitat protection
To enhance turtle habitats on your own property, consider planting native and removing invasive species of vegetation, maintaining fallen logs and debris for basking sites, creating artificial nesting mounds, and building nest protectors. Habitat protection can also scale up to your community as well. Make your voice heard within your local governments and vote with the environment in mind!

Report your sightings
Recording and submitting your turtle observations to community science projects is a simple yet valuable way to contribute to conservation efforts. When reporting to iNaturalist in particular, your findings are shared to scientific data repositories like NatureServe Canada, a registered charity that runs a network of provincial and territorial Conservation Data Centres (CDC’s) across the country. CDC’s allow species occurrence data to be accessed by governments, private industry, researchers, and conservation organizations, which can then be used for conservation-related purposes such as identifying hot spots of road mortality, determining the extent of a species’ geographic range, or even discovering previously unknown populations to be protected.

Before submitting to iNaturalist, check out these tips from the Canadian Wildlife Federation on how to make the most of your observations.

Credit: Working Group for the Conservation of Ontario Turtles.

The poster above was created in partnership with Canadian Wildlife Federation, Carleton University, Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre, Scales Nature Park, Toronto Zoo, Upper Thames River Conservation Authority, and Wildlife Preservation Canada. This project was undertaken with the financial support of the Government of Canada provided through the federal Department of Environment and Climate Change.