Log Cabin Chronicles

Talking turtles today

Beth Girdler

BETH GIRDLER

The timing couldn't have been better. Recently, a group of twenty-six Bishop's University students, their teachers, and I were exploring the wonders of Quebec's Katevale Marsh. These students from the education program are the teachers of tomorrow and I had the great fortune of teaching them about the value of wildlife, respect and responsibility for our environment, and most important, how to convey this knowledge to children.

A marsh is always a great place to observe the incredible diversity of plant and animal species. The rich smelly muck that lurks just under the surface of any marsh (a black oozing mass of decomposing cattails) holds the answer to life. It is the primordial soup of modern day.

One fistful of this stuff contains a veritable mountain of micro-organisms. These in turn feed organisms we can see with the naked eye. At any time of the year, a net scooped into the muck can reveal amazing creatures such as scuds, water boatmen, backswimmers, or dragonfly nymphs. A second try may land you a water scorpion, whirligig beetle or even a tiny baby catfish, black and smooth and complete with its own set of "whiskers."

More exciting to children are animals higher up on the food chain. Fish, frogs and turtles and snakes, ducks, and herons are all part of the marsh ecosystem. Even if you can't see the animal itself, muskrat houses, beaver-gnawed trees, mink scats, and half-eaten fish provide further evidence of marsh inhabitants.

So, here we are just beginning our walk along the crushed rock path that was once, I believe, a railway bed.

The path is pitted with the remains of turtle nests. Turtles search out this type of coarse material to lay their eggs in. Gravel pits, roadsides, and railway berms are all considered prime turtle real estate come June. Nest predation is widespread with raccoons, fox, skunk, mink, and coyotes only too eager to sniff out a tasty meal.

We stopped to look at the empty shells of turtles that had hatched. As we gathered round, one student noticed a movement in what we took to be an emptied turtle nest. As we watched, the head of a tiny squirming turtle was followed by an equally tiny, ridged shell and long tail.

turtleAs the little fella (or gal) broke through to the surface, more heads, shells and tails followed. Seven baby snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina) made it to the surface. Within a very short time, these mighty mites headed for the water. Once there, some stopped and floated a while, others began paddling immediately.

If the eggs remain undisturbed and the necessary number of days reaching critical temperatures accumulate, snapping turtles hatch out any time from late August to the end of October.

Within a nest, eggs closer to the surface may get more heat and complete their development before those buried further down. It is not unusual for a delay to occur between the emergence of the first individuals and the rest of the clutch. My group of students was probably witnessing the second wave for this particular nest.

Once the hatchlings get to water, they are not home free. They must avoid predators and find a safe place to hibernate. The mud base of a muskrat lodge may provide winter accommodation for several turtles.

One might wonder how turtles manage to survive as a species when so many die - ninety percent and more - as eggs or hatchlings. Turtles, however, have existed quite nicely for over 200 million years.

The explanation is two-fold.

First, many eggs (up to eighty-three recorded) are laid at one time. This ensures the survival of at least a couple of offspring per adult female every few years. Secondly, if they withstand their first few years, snappers are generally very long-lived - attaining forty years of age or more.

As adults, humans (via turtle soup, road kill), otters, bears and coyotes are still cause for concern but because they spend most of their time with only their nose sticking out of the mud, longevity is still a good bet. It is interesting to note that due to a diet high in animal substance, snapping turtles, like humans, can accumulate concentrations of contaminants such as PCBs and pesticides in their fatty tissue. The effects of these contaminants are under study.

If you discover the whereabouts of a turtle nest, watch but do not disturb. There is a master plan here. The eggs hatch when the time is right.

turtles

Hatchlings that make it to the water have a much greater chance of long-term survival than those raised in captivity and released. No matter how careful you are, you will have an "unnatural" influence on their behavior. The key to protecting turtles is to protect their habitat, since a decline in the number of reproducing adults will in turn cause a decline in their population.

Furthermore, it is against the Wildlife Conservation Law of Quebec to keep native turtle species. Remember, wildlife is better off in the wild.

The group moved on to look at other interesting aspects of the marsh. On our return, a dozen more turtles were up and out and heading for water. What real-life drama…what an example of the fragility and complexity of life…

I worked for many years as a midwife. Seeing those little turtles struggle from the ground and make their way to the water gave me the same sense of awe and exultation I experienced whenever a human baby slipped out into the world. I doubt if any of us at the marsh that day will forget the sight. I hope the excitement, curiosity and need for understanding of what we see in our natural world will extend from these student teachers to their future students.

No, the timing couldn't have been better.

The naturalist Beth Girdler writes from Ayer's Cliff, Quebec.

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