I was recently at a neighbour's house admiring their garden (and picking a few fresh veggies for dinner) when she shared with me an amazing feat of nature she witnessed that very morning. She had the opportunity to WATCH a nest of turtle eggs hatch, right before her eyes! Let's talk turtles and how incredible it was to see these turtles greet the daylight...
Turtles are often referred to as modern day dinosaurs, with their distinctive domed shell, they are easily recognized. This unique set of armour provides turtles with protection from predators; however, despite this adaptation, seven of Ontario's eight species of turtles are considered at-risk and face ongoing threats including habitat loss and fragmentation, road mortality, and increased nest predation.
In Ontario, turtle nesting season can begin as early as May, and can last until mid-July, depending on the year and location. Turtles often migrate to construct their nest. Female turtles select nesting sites based on numerous factors, including soil characteristics and sun exposure. The silt and sand along roadsides make for great nest conditions, as to shorelines and beaches. The number of eggs laid in a nest varies from species to species. For example, Midland Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta marginata) will lay between three and 14 eggs, whereas Snapping Turtles (Chelydra serpentina) will lay between 30-40 eggs. With most species, their hatchlings emerge in the late summer/fall season; however some species such as Midland Painted Turtles will often hatch and overwinter in the nest and emerge the following spring season. Incubation periods vary between 60-90 days depending on the weather in a given year. A warm year will help the eggs develop faster and the young may emerge as early as mid-August, whereas a cooler year they might hatch later in the fall. Interestingly, for many species of turtle, the sex of the hatchlings is determined by the temperature of the nest during incubation. Lower temperatures result in male hatchlings, while a long hot summer will result in more female turtles.
Because of the desired nesting locations, female turtles are largely threatened while choosing their nest location due to road mortality. If the female turtle makes it to her nesting site and successfully deposits her eggs, her offspring only have a 1% chance of surviving to breeding age. Odds are that each turtle must nest for several years (or even decades) before it replaces itself! Once a nest is laid, the eggs are on their own! Turtles do not tend to their nest, nor do they care for their young.
As a result, hatchling turtles go through a period of extremely high mortality caused by predators and environmental stressors. Within 24 hours of a turtle laying its eggs, the clutch emits a strong smell and leave the nest vulnerable to predators such as raccoons, skunks, foxes, and crows. If a nest does successfully hatch, those turtles need to make it from the nest to the water on their own, without something predating them on their journey. Hatchlings can be about 2-3 cm in length when they hatch and are also quite vulnerable until they mature.
What can you do if you see a nesting turtle?
Leave it alone! A nesting female turtle needs space (at least 10 m!). If she is disturbed too many times, she is at risk of becoming eggbound (unable to pass eggs) and can die. If you find a turtle, watch it from a respectful distance and keep your pets on a leash. You can take note of the location and report it to a monitoring program or record it on iNaturalist. Do not dig up or move turtle nests - you risk damaging eggs and it is illegal to take wildlife into captivity or to disturb the nests of endangered or threatened species. Do not cover the nests - the eggs are incubated by warmth and sunlight, and shading the nest can slow or stop development. You should also avoid placing objects over the nest to keep predators out as it can trap babies inside once hatched.
When is it safe to help turtles on the road?
The only time it is appropriate to pick up a turtle is if it is trying to cross a road. In that case, move the turtle carefully in the direction it was headed and let it be. Remember to wash your hands as soon as possible after handling a turtle!
It may seem like hatchlings could be vulnerable to predators, and need your help. And while the first statement is true, it is important to remember that predation is a natural occurrence in nature. Not much is known yet about how turtles navigate the landscape and how or when turtles learn important cues, but many experts believe that the movement from nest to water is an important time in the life of a turtle. That being said, if you find hatchlings emerging from a nest on the side of a busy road it is recommended that they be moved off the road in the direction they were headed. While it is not advisable to move hatchlings at all, in this scenario if they are not moved there will be few survivors due to the grave risk traffic poses.
Photo credits to Dianne Wooldridge