One of my personal favourite species of reptile that lives here in our province is the spotted turtle, Clemmys guttata. It’s Canada’s smallest species of turtle, and they’re easily our most beautiful! With bright orange skin, yellow spots on a jet black shell, the cutest little faces, and spunk and personality to spare, they are one of Ontario’s true natural treasures.
Spotted turtles have a tough time of it here in Ontario. In fact, they aren’t doing well anywhere they occur. There are many pressures to this species, and very little relief in sight in a lot of the places they subsist. One real threat is collection for the pet trade. It is illegal in this part of the world to keep the species without a special permit, but elsewhere, spotted turtles can be legally bought and sold. Where they are bred in captivity, that is just fine, but the numbers produced in captivity does not feed the demand for these wonderful little turtles. Therefore, the demand for wild caught animals is very real and these turtles are collected by unscrupulous individuals looking to make a quick buck.
Where the landscape is disturbed, the species seems to be quite sensitive. Even in Provincial Parks, the disturbances that can occur are not favourable to these little turtles. From 1995 to 2002, I conducted an informal volunteer study of spotted turtles for a park. It was created in 1975. It’s not a very large area, by Provincial Park standards, and yet there were hundreds of spotted turtles living within the boundaries. Between 1976 and 1978 most of the critical habitat in the park was altered, as the campgrounds and other recreational areas were developed. Family camping became the primary function of this little park, and today it boasts several hundred sites, most of which occur in previously occupied spotted turtle habitat.
As the years went by, another huge pressure for today’s turtles emerged in full force. Predator populations were being rapidly subsidized. Campers unknowingly (or consciously) feed raccoons, creating more body fat in the adults, which therefore produce more young. The population flourishes, only to put more pressure on whatever species the raccoons naturally prey upon. So, with a deflated population of spotted turtles within this park due to habitat destruction, and dramatically increased pressure on the turtles from subsidized predator populations, the spotted turtles have disappeared from the park. Additionally, while the actual reasons are unknown, a spotted turtle population at Point Pelee National Park that was once as populous as painted turtles, disappeared entirely after the creation of that park (Browne and Hecnar, Biological Conservation 138 (2007) 421–429).
I was able to locate a population not terribly far away from the Park thanks to a local naturalist, and conducted a mark and re-capture study to assess the population. Over the next three years, several members of the KTTC came out to help. Ideally, if I could prove that the site harboured a substantial number of the now endangered spotted turtle, I would hopefully be able to rally for some real protection for the land – and therefore the turtles. I handed over all my results to someone far more capable of levying support for this protection and today that site is being studied by Laurentian University’s Dr. Jacqueline Litzgus and MSc. candidate Megan Rasmussen. Hopefully these wonderful people can get the deed done, and this population of wonderful turtles can exist for generations to come.
Isn’t it strange that spotted turtles, an endangered species, are no longer found within that Provincial Park where they once flourished – possibly one of the largest populations known, and yet just a few kilometres away, that newly discovered site is thriving – because it’s in a relatively undisturbed area.
Isn’t it too bad that camping and going to the beach is more important than our wildlife?
About the Author: Steve Marks is a long-time volunteer of the KTTC and has also been involved with the Ontario Herpetofaunal Society.