A Day With The UTRCA Species at Risk Reptile Team

The UTRCA Species At Risk Reptile Team has protected 175 Softshell Turtle nests and hopes to release 2000 young turtles like this one back into the Thames River this year.

The UTRCA Species At Risk Reptile Team has protected 175 Softshell Turtle nests and hopes to release 2000 young turtles like this one back into the Thames River this year.

As a nature lover, I am a huge fan of the Thames River that flows through London, Ontario. The river itself, and the various habitat along its banks, make it the perfect location to find birds, mammals, amphibians, and reptiles. Among these reptiles is the Spiny Softshell Turtle, a Species At Risk in Ontario. With their leathery shells and snorkel-like noses, these unique turtles are my favourite reptile residing in the Thames River. Spiny Softshell Turtles spend much of their time in the water, but can be observed basking on rocks and logs.

The newly released turtles quickly made their way into the water from this log they were placed on.

The newly released turtles quickly made their way into the water from this log they were placed on.

The Ontario Fish and Wildlife Protection Act currently protects these turtles from being harassed in any way. Failure to comply with this can result in large fines and even jail time. Although habitat loss is their biggest threat, other human activity such as poaching threatens this species. These turtles are known to be collected for the food and pet trade and also medicinal purposes. In an effort to reduce poaching, it is advised that specific locations of these turtles not be published on the internet. Both the Species at Risk Act and Endangered Species Act list the Spiny Softshell Turtle as threatened in Ontario. Any illegal activity regarding this or other threatened species should be reported to the Ministry Of Natural Resources 1-877-TIPS-MNR.

It was quite an incredible experience witnessing these Species At Risk being released. Thanks to Scott Gillingwater and the team for inviting me to come along.

It was quite an incredible experience witnessing these Species At Risk being released. Thanks to Scott Gillingwater and the team for inviting me to come along.

The Upper Thames River Conservation Authority (UTRCA) led by Species at Risk Biologist Scott Gillingwater are doing incredible work in preserving this species in the Thames River watershed. Scott and his Species At Risk Reptile Team have protected 175 Softshell Turtle nests this year alone and are hopeful that 2000 young turtles will be returned to the Thames River. Some nests have been protected from predators such as raccoons by placing wire cages over them, other nests are carefully excavated and the eggs taken to the Species at Risk Reptile Team’s lab where they are placed in incubators and hatched there. Upon hatching the young turtles are measured, weighed and returned within days to the location where the eggs were removed from. It is here they are released back into the river. It is estimated that only 1% of unprotected turtle eggs will reach adulthood. The Species at Risk Reptile Team ensures the majority of eggs at least hatch, helping the Spiny Softshell Turtle overcome their first obstacle.

If you are exploring along the Thames River you may notice this species or efforts to protect it. Please respect both the turtles and hard work of the team. Remember tampering with a nest is considered harassment and charges can be laid.

The young turtles being released are about the size of a loonie; the females can grow to be more than 45cm in length.

The young turtles being released are about the size of a loonie; the females can grow to be more than 45cm in length.

The majority of this season’s protected eggs have already hatched and the young have been released into the river. I was recently invited by Scott Gillingwater out to see some of the recent hatchlings and tour the lab. As an avid fan of these turtles I jumped at the opportunity. Upon arriving at the UTRCA building I was greeted by Scott and introduced to Kaela and Krista, members of his team. All three of them were warm and inviting, and even though we had just met I felt like I had known them for years.

First, I was shown a group of recently hatched Spiny Softshell Turtles no bigger than a loonie that were ready to be released. The team educated me on everything about the turtles from habitat, to behaviour and how to distinguish between sexes. The incubators holding containers of eggs waiting to hatch were then explained. An interesting display of various turtle shells, skulls and other educational material that has been collected over the years was then presented. Scott, Kaela, and Krista’s passion for these turtles and what they do was evident as they spoke. This whole experience and the education I was given was truly fascinating and I am incredibly grateful for being invited to spend the morning with the team.

This particular turtle paused briefly on the surface before diving to the bottom of the river.

This particular turtle paused briefly on the surface before diving to the bottom of the river.

Next I was asked by Scott if I wanted to accompany him and the team on the release of the young turtles. I responded with a definite yes and was excited to witness these young turtles begin their journey in the Thames. I followed the team by truck to the location where the eggs had been collected earlier this year. The river was quite high after receiving 4 1/2 inches of rain during the previous week’s thunderstorms. The normal bank area was underwater and the river was flowing fast. Finding a place where our feet would stay dry wasn’t going to happen, so we waded through the flooded grasses that under normal water levels would have been dry. We remained a safe distance from the rushing river in an area that provided cover for the turtles in the form of a muddy bottom and plenty of vegetation.

I was able to photograph these turtles as the team placed them on a log surrounded by vegetation. Upon being released, the turtles quickly entered the water and disappeared towards the bottom. It was quite a thrill being permitted to release the last turtle as Scott snapped a picture. We carefully exited the area and left the turtles to begin their journey in the wild.

Scott Gillingwater has written an incredible book entitled “Stewardship Of The Spiny Softshell Turtle” that is loaded full of information about these and other turtles which I referenced for the purpose of this blog. Photographs of larger Spiny Softshell Turtles in the Thames River can be found in my earlier blog post Unique Reptiles Found in London, Ontario.

The Spiny Softshell Turtles quickly headed to the ample vegetation and muddy bottom for cover upon being released.

The Spiny Softshell Turtles quickly headed to the ample vegetation and muddy bottom for cover upon being released.

For more information on the Spiny Softshell Turtle and the Species at Risk Reptile Team visit the UTRCA website here. Funding for this project is critical to its success so private donations are always appreciated. Donations can easily be made online by clicking here. Be sure to like UTRCA on Facebook and follow them on Twitter.

Once again I would like to thank Scott, Kaela and Krista for the incredible work they do preserving this amazing species and for providing me with such an amazing experience.

Good birding,
Paul

 

 

 

 

 

 

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