Turtle FAQ

Frequently Asked Questions

What should I do if I have a wild turtle emergency?
CALL 705-741-5000 IF YOU HAVE A WILD TURTLE EMERGENCY.  The Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre provides medical and rehabilitative care to Ontario’s native turtles.

Why should we care about turtles?
All native animals are a necessary and useful part of the fauna (the wild animals found in a particular habitat or territory). Turtles help control plant life by incorporating it as part of their food source. They eat invertebrate and vertebrate animals and are themselves food for fish, snakes, birds and mammals. (Invertebrates are animals without backbones while vertebrates are those with backbones. Invertebrates may be soft, such as earthworms, or hard, such as crayfish, both of which turtles eat.) Turtles also help clean lakes and rivers and play an important role in creating balance within the ecosystem.

Where do turtles live?
Turtles live wherever they can find the temperature, food and shelter they need in wetlands such as bogs, fens, marshes, and swamps. Painted turtles, for example, like shallow, weedy bays in lakes and slow-moving rivers. There they find water plants and small soft-bodied animals to eat, and they find basking sites or dense plant growth in which they can hide from predators. Wood turtles like sandy, small rivers or ponds near fields and open woods where they forage for berries, plants and invertebrates such as snails and worms. Eastern Spiny Softshell turtles stick to open rivers and lakes with shallow areas where they can hunt fish, crayfish and other aquatic food.

How does the Government define species at risk?
Ontario status designations are the product of complementary review and assessment processes implemented at national and provincial levels. The national assessment process takes place under the auspices of the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), and Ontario has been an active participant on COSEWIC since its inception in 1978. The provincial review process is implemented by the Ministry of Natural Resources’ Committee on the Status of Species at Risk in Ontario (COSSARO), which includes non-OMNR representation. The purpose of this committee is to ensure a uniform, science-based, defensible approach to provincial status evaluations conducted for Ontario species.

Which turtles do we find on this list?
The designations assigned to species on the following list are, in most cases, in agreement with those assigned to the species by COSEWIC. However, OMNR has assigned certain species a status designation that differs from the national designation. For example, species whose Ontario status is of greater concern than the status elsewhere in Canada have been assigned a higher designation by OMNR. On the attached list, any exceptions to the national designation are marked with an asterisk (*), and explanatory notes are provided.

Wood Turtle: Clemmys insculpta: END *

Spiny Softshell: Apalone spinifera: THR

Stinkpot (Musk Turtle): Sternotherus odoratus:THR

Blanding’s Turtle: Emydoidea blandingii: THR**

Snapping: Chelydra Serpenrina: THR

Northern Map Turtle: Fraptemys geographica: SC

Spotted Turtle: Clemmys guttata: END *

Rationale: These species are all multi-jurisdictional in range (i.e. they occur in one or more Canadian provinces in addition to Ontario) and OMNR, based primarily on COSSARO recommendations, recognizes the need to assign these species a higher status provincially than has been assigned nationally.

**provincially – designated only

Where do turtles go in the winter?
Canadian turtles hibernate for over five months every winter. Some, like the Painted and Snapping Turtles, hibernate on the bottom of quiet backwaters, nestled up to sunken logs or under stream or lakeside banks. Others, such as the Spotted Turtle, hibernate in the fens or flooded fields in which they live during the summertime. They must choose sites where the water does not freeze right to the bottom or become too low in dissolved oxygen.

Why do turtles bask in summer time?
Turtles bask or lay in the sun because they are reptiles and cannot make their own heat. The sun’s warmth helps raise their body temperatures up to between 16° C and 35° C so they can better digest their food. Also, their muscles work better if they are warm.

Where in Canada are these species found?
Ontario has all eight species, Québec has seven, Nova Scotia four, New Brunswick three, Manitoba and Saskatchewan two each and British Columbia and Alberta one species each. There are no native turtles on Prince Edward Island or Newfoundland.

Do turtles have a good sense of smell?
Yes they do; they use their sense of smell to find and identify food, mates, territory etc. On land turtles smell things the way we do but under water many have special little bumps or barbels on their chins that contain olfactory (sense of smell) nerve endings to help them find food in dark or muddy water. Tiny Painted Turtles, for example, are born knowing that the smell of a Snapping Turtle means danger and they react to fast movement by diving for cover.

Do turtles see well?
Yes, most species see very well. They even have color vision, particularly at the red end of the light spectrum. They have the ability to detect small differences in pattern and shape. This is very important for animals that live at the water’s surface where it is possible to see for long distances. Their ability to detect pattern and scent enables them to recognize their own species and avoid enemies. Turtles only have binocular vision, meaning they only see what is in front them.

Do turtles hear well?
No, turtles lack a tympanum (ear drum) although they do have some of the internal ear bones that other animals have. They can detect low frequency sounds and pick up vibrations when on land or in the water, but turtles do not depend upon hearing to any great extent.

Is it true that turtles carry Salmonella?
Many animals, humans included, can carry Salmonella bacteria. Wild turtles can carry the disease and also suffer from it. Perhaps ten percent in most areas are carriers but this may be higher in very polluted waters. People should wash their hands thoroughly after touching any animal. Very small children (five years old or less) and the very old should not touch turtles. There are many diseases that can be transmitted from animals to humans (the other way, too!) and careful washing with soap and water is the best protection.

Why do turtles cross roads and highways?
Turtles of all ages will wander away from their home water bodies occasionally, but mainly it is the adult females that must struggle overland in the nesting season to find a suitable warm, sunny place to bury their eggs. Roads border many of our rivers, ponds and lakes where turtles live, so vehicles take a terrible annual toll on breeding females. Since turtles need a specific combination of conditions to lay their eggs — southern exposure with its more direct sun, soft soil, the appropriate soil humidity, and little or no plant cover — they often have no choice but to go far from the water in which they live. Female turtles may have used many of these sites for generations.

What do you do if you spot a turtle heading across the road?
If you believe the animal to be in immediate danger and you wish to help, make a safe stop. Help it across the road in the direction in which it was heading or if it appears to be advancing toward more danger, take it to a nearby suitable environment. A swampy area with a sandy bank behind it would be ideal. If the turtle is obviously headed away from the water body in which it lives, do not take it back to the water. It will only retrace its steps to get to the nesting area.

Smaller species such as Painted Turtles or Blanding’s Turtles can simply be lifted and carried by hand or in a bucket or box. Be aware that they have claws and do not put your fingers near their beaks — they are frightened and might bite. Large Snapping Turtles are likely to bite and scratch so they should be handled carefully and by adults or older children only. Grasp the snapper at the base of the tail, lift it gently and point the beak away from your body. Carry it to the edge of the road to release it. If this method does not appeal to you try grabbing the tail and sliding the turtle onto a large flat shovel or piece of cardboard and dragging it to a safe release spot.

Important: On larger Snapping Turtles (over 30 cm/one foot in carapace length), the weight may be sufficient to break the tail if the animal is carried vertically. Use a shovel, plywood or cardboard and drag the animal. In all cases be aware that the turtle’s claws are strong and the beak is sharp. They can reach you if you are careless. Be prepared for frequent powerful lunges of the head.

*** Do not try to lift a large turtle by the tip of it’s tail.

Is it true that the turtle’s shell is hard enough to withstand being run over by a vehicle?

No, the carapace (shell) is quite thin and easily crushed.

Thank you to Turtle S.H.E.L.L. Tortue for this information.

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