Snapping turtles in Brantwood Park

PHOTO BY SEAMUS DEGRANDPRE

Story by Josefine Yacksmith

On a Saturday morning in June, Seamus Degrandpre got quite a surprise in Brantwood Park.

Degrandpre was biking through the park around 7:30 a.m., when he saw some children’s toys in the sandpit surrounding a large hole that had been dug in the sand. Looking closer, he came face to face with the stare of two black eyes of a giant turtle, its shell covered in algae.

“She was laying eggs,” said reptile expert Kenneth Storey, a professor at Carleton University, when told about Grandpre’s discovery. “That’s the classic stance. They take their back legs and flipper themselves down until they get deep enough to lay eggs. Then they walk back out, flippering, covering it.”

The prehistoric-looking animal Degrandpre saw was a Snapping Turtle.

‘Snappers’ are found from Ecuador to Canada, and are this country’s largest freshwater reptile, with shells up to 50 cm long and weighing up to about 35 lbs. Many people in Old Ottawa East see these turtles near the banks of the Rideau River every year.

Female turtles comes up from the river around June to find a spot to lay eggs. They look for sandy, damp, warm soil and will travel some distance to find a suitable spot. They usually dig holes above the water line on a slope, to ensure proper drainage, so the eggs don’t sink and drown the babies.

“It’s a delicate balance of [finding] the right sand, the right sun and the area where they can lay eggs,” said Storey. “Turtles have worked this out for 500 million years. They just didn’t have children’s playgrounds when they were first evolving, before the dinosaurs.”

Turtle eggs normally hatch in the fall, revealing loonie-sized hatchlings. A very small percentage of snapping turtles actually grow to full size.

Most eggs are eaten by animals such as raccoons and skunks. Hatchlings are often eaten by predators, such as pike fish, because they mature slowly, taking 15-20 years to reach adulthood.

Out of eight species of turtles in Ontario, seven are currently in the ‘species at risk’ category. The Snapping Turtle is among those of special concern under Ontario’s Endangered Species Act. Their numbers are decreasing in Ontario, due to loss of habitat and hunting.

“If a nest is in an area that is really unsuitable the Ministry of Natural Resources Species at Risk biologist/district ecologist should be consulted,” said Michael Yee, manager of biology and water quality of the Rideau Valley Conservation Authority.

Yee does not advise people to move turtle eggs, even if they seem to be in a dangerous spot. It is against the law to interfere with wildlife without permission from the Ministry of Natural Resources, which can assess a situation and give advice.

People who find turtle eggs in a precarious location should contact the Natural Resources Information Center at 1-800-667-1940, or mnr.nric.mnr@ontario.ca.

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