Scientists in London, Ont. have released a record number of eastern spiny softshell turtle hatchlings into the wild in the largest single attempt in Canada to bring the endangered species back from the brink of extinction.
The 6,000 hatchlings were released at secret locations along the Thames River in order to protect them from poachers, the pet trade, and their use in folk medicine.
Scientists and volunteers know that only a handful of the thousands of hatchlings released will survive, but they say it's worth it.
"Without this breeding program this species would be completely lost," said Kaela Orton, a species at risk assistant with the Upper Thames River Conservation Authority. "They actually have a lot of threats."
Feels like the back of your ear
The eastern spiny softshell turtle is flat and green and its shell is soft. Feel the back of your ear and you'll get an idea what it feels like to run your finger across its shell.
Because its squishy shell leaves it more vulnerable than its hardshell counterparts, the softshell turtle evolved into a swift swimmer to outrun predators and has a snout it uses like a snorkel, to breathe without leaving the safety of the mud it often buries itself in.
Predators, poachers and flooding brought the species to the brink of extinction not only Ontario, but the rest of Canada as well, until scientists started recovery efforts in the 1990s.
Back then, they caged the nests of softshell turtles in order to protect them from predators, such as skunks, raccoons and humans.
Dams destroy nests
What made matters worse for the turtles was human activity, such as damming, which would artificially flood the reptiles' nesting areas and suffocate their eggs, which can't survive underwater longer than 36 to 48 hours.
Things got so bad, scientists working in the field started only seeing adults, meaning most of the juveniles were either killed by predators or snuffed out before they hatched.
In 2008, scientists with the Upper Thames Valley Conservation Authority started seeking out turtle nests and taking the eggs so they could be incubated in labs.
Once they hatch and are able to fend for themselves, the scientists release them into the wild. Last year, they released 4,000 and this year, 6,000 the largest amount yet.
Efforts making a difference
Kaela Orton says those efforts have made a big difference.
"Now we're finding different age classes juveniles, adults," she said. "It's actually pretty incredible."
"We work long hours during nesting season to save as many of these little guys as we can and seeing all that hard work paid off is pretty incredible."
"Humans have caused all of these issues for this species. This species would naturally survive if it wasn't for poachers and dams."