Scientists release record number of endangered soft shell turtles

Scientists in London, Ont. are trying to bring the eastern spiny soft shell turtle back from the brink of extinction by releasing a record number of lab-produced hatchings into the wild.

6,000 eastern spiny soft shell turtles were released in secret to protect them from poachers

6,000 Eastern Spiny Softshell turtles set loose by conservation group 0:56

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

A scientist holds two spiny soft shell turtle hatchlings inside a lab at the Fanshawe Conservation Area in London, Ont. The species is endangered and scientists are trying to bring the turtle back from the brink of extinction by breeding them in a lab then releasing them into the Thames River. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

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. 

Kaela Orton describes what eastern spiny softshell turtles feel and look like. 0:34

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

An eastern spiny softshell turtle pops its head out of a tub filled with weeds and water in a lab at the Fanshawe Conservation Area in London, Ont. The reptile uses its snout like a snorkel so it can breathe air without leaving the safety of vegetation or mud. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

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

Leah Wakem holds her 18-month-old daughter over a plastic tub filled with weeds and turtle hatchlings. The Upper Thames Valley Conseration Authority invited the public to see and handle the turtles before they were released into the wild to raise awareness about conservation efforts. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

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."

About the Author

Colin Butler

Video Journalist

Colin Butler is a veteran CBC reporter who's worked in Moncton, Saint John, Fredericton, Toronto, Kitchener-Waterloo, Hamilton and London, Ont. Email: