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Turtles & Roads

Unfortunately, this often takes them over roads and highways where they are in danger of being hit by cars & trucks. Snapping Turtle females have been known to cross overland distances greater than 10 km to find suitable nesting sites, while female Eastern Spiny Soft-Shell turtles rarely venture more than 100 meters from the shore to nest. Turtle nests are typically found within several hundred meters from the nearest water body to minimize the distance that hatchlings have to travel back across land to reach the relative safety of their aquatic habitats.

Many animals are hurt or killed every day on roadsides. But the death of even a single turtle can have an impact on the entire population. The rehabilitation of Ontario turtles is far more than the compassionate gesture of a caring community.

To understand why treatment of injured turtles can actually contribute to species recovery, we need to delve into their biology and reproduction to understand traits that are vastly different from other classes of animals.

The Facts:

  • Turtles are a long-lived species- Snapping turtles may in fact have a lifespan of over 100 years.
  • The vast majority of hatchlings and juveniles do not survive.
  • Turtles do not reach maturity until they are 8-20 years old.
  • Turtles are capable of reproducing throughout their lifespan once they have reached maturity.
  • In the natural state, adult turtles have an extremely LOW mortality rate- only 1% per year. In a healthy population 99% of adult turtles survive each year!
  • Turtles do not compensate for an increase in the mortality rate by producing more eggs per year
  • Very small increases in the mortality rate, such as being killed on roads, can lead to the decline and eventual extinction of the population

What does all this mean? That the early death of an adult turtle has a much greater impact on the population than the death of a hatchling or juvenile. The adult female turtle is of GREAT value to the survival of a population. Considering as few as 1% of hatchlings reach maturity, and only half of these are likely to be female, it would take 200 eggs and 18 years to produce another adult female. Because so few turtles ever reach sexual maturity, each adult turtle is part of an elite group destined to live and breed for many years in order to perpetuate the species. Removing an adult turtle has a negative impact on the population – and saving a turtle has a beneficial impact on the population as a whole.

A Snapping Turtle nesting on a road shoulder (photo by C Gilders)

This explains why roads are having such a terrible impact on turtles throughout North America. Even small numbers of adult turtles killed each year are contributing to the decline of most species, and unless road mortality is reduced, species will disappear. The rehabilitation of injured turtles is indeed contributing to the recovery of turtle populations in Ontario. Public awareness and a reduction in the number of turtles hit by motor vehicles will also preserve our turtles.

As an organization with limited physical and financial resources, our role in species recovery has been to focus on education, and on treating injured adults, since these are the individuals who will have a positive impact on the population. We do incubate eggs obtained from our patients, and are hoping soon to acquire funds to study the effectiveness of this “headstarting”. Our “turtle hospital” has successfully treated and released hundreds of turtles that were hit by cars – many of whom would have died without treatment.

The KTTC aims to reduce the number of turtles hit by vehicles by teaching people of all ages and backgrounds to appreciate turtles, and keep an eye out for them when driving through wetland habitats.

Learn more about how to help turtles on the road.

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