Egg incubator program in Cambridge looks to protect turtle population

Rare Charitable Research Reserve in Cambridge has launched a turtle incubator program to help protect the turtle population in the Waterloo region area.

Conservation technician Alissa Fraser looks after 693 turtle eggs

Snapping turtles populations have seen a decline in recent years, leading them to be added to Ontario's species at risk list. (Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre)

Seven of Ontario's eight turtle species are listed at risk and Rare Charitable Research Reserve in Cambridge is looking to help the next generation of turtles by launching their inaugural turtle egg incubator program.

Alissa Fraser is a conservation technician at Rare and is in charge of looking after 693 turtle eggs.

So far she's rescued 23 snapping turtle nests and two painted turtle nests from parks, construction sites and roadsides.

Snapping turtles prefer gravelled areas they can dig, such as road shoulders. But that makes them more susceptible to road mortality as they are on the road for several hours looking for a spot to lay their eggs. (Alissa Fraser)

"[Snapping turtles] prefer clear sunny areas with a nice [area] they can dig in so they love gravel, which is exactly what the shoulder of the road and driveways are made of," she said.

But that makes them more  susceptible to road mortality, Fraser said, as they are on the road for several hours looking for a spot to lay their eggs.

Once the nests are rescued, Fraser stores the eggs in plastic containers filled with water and vermiculite, a mineral that absorbs water, to help match the level of humidity that a natural snapping turtle nest would have.

"We check them once a week, make sure the weight stays the same and any weight loss we replace the water lost to keep them humid," she said.

She adds that the eggs should hatch in August. At that point, she will bring hatchlings to the most safe spot near to where she found the nest.  

Adult turtles matter too

Last week, the Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre declared a state of emergency after taking in almost 600 injured turtles this year.

But they are not the only wildlife group seeing trouble with turtles. Hobbitstee Wildlife Refuge in Jarvis, Ont. has also seen such an increase in the number of injured turtles this year that they are over capacity for their facility.

They currently have 70 turtles in their care, the majority are large snapping turtles.

A snapping turtle nest close to the road. It takes snapping turtles 20 years to reach sexual maturity, so the loss of an adult snapping turtle can really dent their population. (Alissa Fraser)

"We exceeded maximum housing capabilities of large snapping significantly so we had to tap into our emergency fund to create spaces and enclosures to house large snapping turtles," said Chantal Theijn, wildlife custodian at Hobbitstee Wildlife Sanctuary.

In the case of snapping turtles, the loss of one adult turtle is a significant blow to their population because it takes them at least 20 years to reach sexual maturity.

"These specimens that we see get hit on the road are almost always of breeding age," Theijn said.

Fraser said that not many people are aware of the state of emergency with snapping turtles and although the population may not be severely affected now, there will be a significant dip in the number of snapping turtles in the future.

Keen community

Fraser said there is a strong community of people in Waterloo region and Wellington County that care for the survival of the turtles. All the nests she's rescued are as a result of people calling in, she said.

"When I started this project this year I didn't know how many eggs I would be getting," Fraser said.

"I thought it would be nice to save one nest this year, because it got off to a little bit of a late start, but I contacted a couple of places and word got out and it seems there is a keen community about protecting turtles in this area."

Part of the incubator program at Rare also looks at creating mitigation strategies to better protect turtles by keeping track of the locations of the nests and tracking road mortality around those nests.

"I can try and pinpoint hot spots that would be worth looking into for further mitigation measures like installing wildlife fencing and turtle-friendly under passes under roads," she said.


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