by Emily Roy, Wild at Heart volunteer
Since it first opened its doors over thirty years ago, Wild at Heart Wildlife Refuge Centre has been a home to hundreds of injured, ill, or orphaned wildlife, from dainty songbirds to clever foxes. One of the most common visitors to Wild at Heart, however, are turtles. Every year, volunteers from various backgrounds work hard to help run this non-profit organization dedicated to keeping the wild wild, and, every year, these volunteers find themselves caring for dozens of these shelly reptiles.
Most drivers do not realize they are one of the most common reasons as to why turtles find their way into the care of Wild at Heart and other wildlife refuge centres. Most of these motorists are worried about hitting a deer, and do not realize turtles are yet another animal to watch out for when driving down the highway. When a turtle is hit, their most important method of protection, their shell, can get damaged.
Figure One: Increase in turtle victims during mating (May-June) and hibernation (September) season using Wild at Heart admission data from 2008-2015.
The road to recovering from a cracked shell is a long and tedious one. In the end, it is definitely worth it when the turtle is returned to its natural habitat, ready to face the wilds once more. The common beginning to the story of a turtle’s success is a visit from a vet. The injured area is cleaned to prevent infections and a type of disease known as shell rot, which occurs when unwelcome bacteria festers in the exposed wound and causes the shell plates to soften or fall off, as though they are rotting (Image One).
Image One: Disinfecting a painted turtle’s injuries using a betadine solution. (Photo: Monica Seidel).
After disinfecting and dressing the wound, any severe wounds are patched with wire or plate (Image Two). If the crack is small enough, gauze and tape are used. Either way, shells do take time to mend, thus it is important to take care of the turtle to encourage the injuries to heal as quick as possible. A turtle’s tank must always have clean water and an area where the turtle can rest and completely dry off. A heat lamp must always be on as turtles, like all reptiles, are cold-blooded and rely on the sun to warm up. In this case, the sun is a light bulb.
Image Two: Blanding’s turtle with repair to cracked shell. (Photo: Sam Hunter).
Alas, needs can change for each individual turtle, and the methods used vary depending on the veterinarian treating the turtle. It is important to always bring a turtle with a cracked shell to a professional, rather than trying to fix it by oneself.
In Northern Ontario, there are three types of turtle native to the wilds that visit Wild at Heart throughout the year. These are the painted turtle, the snapping turtle, and the Blanding’s turtle. Contrary to popular the popular belief that turtles are slow critters, painted turtles leave that stereotype in the dust when a water source is in view. These speedy turtles are named for their distinctive, colourful markings along their shells and skin (Image Three). They are a common turtle throughout North America, and can live for up to 55 years in the wild.
Image Three: Painted turtle basking while recovering at Wild at Heart. (Photo: Kathleen Dicker).
When it comes to camouflage, the snapping turtle has that covered. These large turtles spend most of their life underwater, so much so that algae begin to grow on them. This allows them to blend in with their environments, and makes it easier to catch their meal, whether it consists of fish, insects, or even other, smaller, turtles. Snapping turtles can also be dangerous. Their sharp beaks are meant for cutting, not crushing, and they can bite through human fingers (Image Four). Should you ever come across an injured or ill snapping turtle, it is important to contact Wild at Heart to get experienced advice.
Image Four: Close-up of snapping turtle’s powerful beak. (Photo: Yubi Kuroda).
Last but not least is the Blanding’s turtle (Image Five). Unlike most species of turtle in Ontario, the shell of a Blanding’s turtle is shaped like a dome (Image Six). Like many species of turtle, the Blanding’s turtle takes quite a while to reach sexual maturity. In this case, a female Blanding’s turtle can take up to 25 years to fully mature.
Image Five: Close-up of a Blanding’s turtle.
Image Six: Dome-shaped shell of a Blanding’s turtle.
(Photos: Nele van Daele & Sarah Townson).
One thing these three species of turtle have in common is they are or are close to being “threatened” in Northern Ontario. Whether it is through habitat loss, road accidents, or natural predators, the populations of these turtles are dwindling. It is important to keep turtles alive and well so future generations can experience their beauty first-hand, rather than by looking at pictures of what once was. Turtles are an important part of the ecosystem, and it is important they stay wild.
Wild at Heart Wildlife Refuge Centre
95 White Road, Lively ON P3Y 1C3
Read more about turtles here: wahrefugecentre.org/turtle-awareness-campaign-national-wildlife-week/