Back-to-pool for coddled baby turtles

After more than two months away inside incubators, nearly six hundred tiny turtles are heading back to the waters of Ottawa's Mud Lake.

Hundreds of at-risk baby turtles were incubated over the summer

Each of the hatchlings has a shell about the size of a toonie with a very long tail and a very large head. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

After more than two months away inside incubators, nearly six hundred tiny turtles are heading back to the waters of Ottawa's Mud Lake.  

The eggs of snapping turtles and Blanding's turtles, each considered species at risk in Ontario, were collected in June from western Ottawa, Lanark and Leeds and Grenville counties by the Canadian Wildlife Federation (CWF) to help protect them from predators and vehicles.

The eggs spent their summer vacation in an incubator at a constant warm temperature of 28 C.  

According to David Seburn, a freshwater turtle specialist for the CWF, most turtles have temperature-dependent sex determination, which means the temperature of the egg helps determine whether it's a male or female.

A hotter temperature produces more females, a lower temperatures more males. 

Watch David Seburn, a freshwater turtle specialist with the Canadian Wildlife Federation, explain why hundreds of tiny turtles are being released at the Britannia Conservation Area. 1:16

This batch of eggs produced roughly half males and half females, and all but two or three eggs hatched. 

"We are trying to aim for a fifty-fifty sex ratio in the population just like in nature." he said.

The first eggs started hatching in the middle of August and have been hatching every day since according to David Seburn, a freshwater turtle specialist for the Canadian Wildlife Federation. (Canadian Wildlife Federation)

The eggs collected in June were laid very close to water, so he feels it's likely the hatchlings would have made it, but they could have also gone to nearby roads and been run over.

Over the past two years the CWF's team has discovered the remains of more than 1,000 turtles killed on local roads, according to Seburn, many of them adult females.

"By releasing [the babies] at the water's edge, they've gotten over two of the biggest speed bumps in their life," he said. 

David Seburn says it's kind of like sending your kids off to school: 'They reach that stage, you’ve done all you can for them, it’s time to let them go and hope for the best.' (Hallie Cotnam/CBC )

Challenges ahead

However, getting to the water doesn't mean their survival is guaranteed. 

"There is no mom to teach them how to hunt or where to go. They are completely on their own, which is pretty remarkable," said Seburn.

Sebrun says typically when they hit the water, they swim for a little bit and then stop and look around as if they are checking out their new digs. 

They are also likely hungry and will begin looking for food.

They aren't fed in captivity because they don't eat as much as mammals and scientists don't want them to eat non-wild food. 

Sebrun says the tiny reptiles have a good awareness of their environment; they know they are small and are probably food for many things and should hide. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

In the end, Seburn expects maybe twenty per cent of the turtles will survive to adulthood.  

"Mortality probably is pretty high, especially the first few weeks. Nature is not very forgiving." he said. 

Many will become prey for large fish. 

After more than two months incubating, hundreds of tiny turtles are being released back into Ottawa's Mud Lake. 7:14

However, he hopes a large number of the turtles get through the fall and their first winter, because their survival should only increase with time. 

"When they are three or four years old, they are big enough that very few predators will tackle them and at that point there will be really really high survivorship going forward."

Despite them being snapping turtles, Seburn says he's never been snapped at or bitten. 'I think they know they are pretty small and your finger is pretty big.' (Hallie Cotnam/CBC )

With files from Hallie Cotnam


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