Conservation authority working to ensure survival of Sydenham’s rare turtle
Wading into a creek with a bucket of hatchlings in hand, conservation intern Brendan Martin searches for a safe place to release young spiny soft shell turtles in the eastern branch of the Sydenham River. He soon finds a grassy bank not overly exposed, where he releases the small creatures into the water one by one. They’re fast for turtles, disappearing quickly as they camouflage themselves among the dirt and rocks.
This year, the St. Clair Region Conservation Authority has been focused on determining where the spiny soft shell turtles are located in the Sydenham River. They have also expanded their conservation project, working in conjunction with the help of Salthaven Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education Centre.
“This year has been a very critical year for the spiny soft shell,” Martin said. “They were recently up-listed to endangered from threatened – this is very important work.”
Martin said they have incubated the eggs until they hatch in late summer, at which point they are released. In doing this, they have a greater survival rate. The eggs are found on the banks of the Sydenham, but predators often scoop them up for food before they have a chance to hatch.
“The biggest threat would be just natural predation from raccoons and other animals,” he said. “But we’re also concerned about poaching and just general harm from people. We’re trying to keep their numbers up so that those impacts are lessened, and educate people.”
The spiny soft shell is not your average turtle – they are skittish and quick to hide away when threats arise. They are vulnerable creatures because their shell isn’t what you would normally expect to see on a turtle.
“They’re very soft, almost leather-like and they’re more susceptible to damage because of that,” Martin said. “Because they’re skittish, that also means that they can be scared off from their nests a lot easier which impacts nesting ability – startled females will often release the rest of their eggs into the water, which kills them.”
Martin said people often want to find the endangered turtles to keep as pets, but they creatures should be left to thrive in their natural habitat. They start small, but can grow to be as big as snapping turtles.
Conservation Authority staff have monitored a number of areas along the Sydenham where turtles nest, trying a number of methods to deter predators such as foxes, skunks, mink and feral cats.
“If you have ever witnessed a turtle lay eggs in the spring and later on in the summer, watch as the baby turtles emerge from the nest head for the water, it will leave you in awe,” White said. “A number of diverse turtle species nesting, basking and swimming have been observed in the area over the years, including a number of species on Ontario’s Species at Risk list.”
White said they have worked hard to create sustainable habitat for at-risk species such as the spiny soft shell, helping to minimize impacts of human and vehicular damage to nesting areas.
Due to the vulnerability of such species, their locations have to be kept private for the wellbeing and protection of these species.
“This is a really unique species, especially for our region – we really don’t have very many reptiles in Canada because of our colder climate,” Martin said. “Ensuring that we have this biodiversity of species within our communities is very important for the ecosystem as a whole, because as soon as you get rid of one species, that has a chain reaction on other species in the area.”