Field Work Program & Blog2021-03-12T12:12:12-05:00

Field Work Program & Blog

Field Work at the OTCC

The Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre has been conducting ‘field work’ since 2012.  This is work done outside of the centre, as yet another arm to our conservation programming.  Its goal is to aid in the bigger picture of conservation and to fill knowledge gaps that will aid turtle conservation programs and projects all over the world.  In the past, we have conducted road mortality surveys at known hotspots, to aid in informing location of eco-passages, we have conducted turtle population surveys in areas where surveys have never been done, and we have tracked turtles via radio telemetry to assess movement patterns, hibernation sites, and location of the elusive juveniles.

Juvenile turtles are very secretive, and there is a lot that is unknown about where they live and what they do during the season.  This knowledge is essential to their conservation.

Our main project in the field currently, is a long-term study to follow a group of ‘headstarted’ juvenile Blanding’s turtles, alongside a group of comparable wild-hatched juvenile Blanding’s.  Headstarting is defined as giving eggs and hatchlings a ‘headstart’ in life by increasing their chance of survival through hatching and raising to some degree in captivity.  This study is made possible by a grant from the Species at Risk Stewardship Fund, as well as the Echo Foundation and Helen McRae Peacock Foundation.  In the past, it has also been funded by Wildlife Preservation Canada and TD Friends of the Environment. It involves attaching a small radio transmitter to the shell (which is not painful, and does not disturb them) and following the ‘beep’ it emits, using a receiver.  This is done weekly, to pinpoint where they travel.  Once a month, they are weighed and the condition is assessed- otherwise, they are left completely alone.

The headstarted Blanding’s that we are following came from eggs collected from cases admitted to our hospital.   Some juveniles were released at about 100g and some at 300g of weight.  The goal is to compare their behaviour, growth and overall survival, to a group of their ‘wild’ counterparts.  We ‘headstart’ a great many babies at our centre (currently we are hatching about 3000 eggs!) so we want to make sure they have the maximum chance of ‘success’ once released.  We define success as being able to add to recruitment into the adult population and therefore augment populations lost to the many threats facing turtles in Ontario.  Remember that in the wild, most eggs do not make it to hatching and are eaten by predators such as raccoons.  Most hatchlings also are consumed before they even make it to water.  It has been estimated that it takes a snapping turtle 59 years, or 1500 eggs to even have a chance at replacing themselves in the population.  Turtle populations have survived over 200 million years with this strategy, only because adult turtles naturally have extremely low mortalities, and they live a very long time.  When the balance is tipped by all the threats placed on them by humans, we need a way to tip that balance back.

Headstarted juvenile Blanding’s turtles get ready for release!

Along with our regular field crew, we often get some very qualified assistance – pictured here is Monte Hummel, President Emeritus of World Wildlife Fund, who brought a ‘ some WWF helpers during our peak time!

When it comes to ‘headstarting’ turtles, there are a great many knowledge gaps; for example- how do we best prepare them for maximum chance of survival?  Where is the best place to release them?  What size and age is the best time to release them?  Is this indeed a viable conservation strategy for freshwater turtles in Ontario?  We are adding to the knowledge of “Best Practices” in all these areas, and have already learned a great deal in the time we have been conducting this study.  We have learned that it is likely very critical where you release them, and this information can only be obtained by studying the field site itself.  We started by following a group of adult wild Blanding’s in this region, as we were looking for wild juveniles to track.  We discovered that the wild adults actually don’t seem to frequent the same places as the juveniles, and travel a much broader area.  The juveniles of only 100g only travel a very short distance over the course of a season, so if they are released in an area that happens to have a predator nearby, they can fall victim to this very easily.  The juveniles of 300g traveled much further, and therefore should have a greater chance of avoiding predation. We have found that the headstarted Blanding’s can hibernate fine, and we have some that have now hibernated 5 consecutive winters! We have also found that it can be very hard work to follow some of these larger juveniles, as they like to travel in very inaccessible places!

Our goal for this study is to follow these turtles through until they are sexually mature, and show that they are able to add to the adult population – with a species so slow to mature, this will take a few more years!

While we are out in this field site, we also conduct population surveys on all the turtle species present in this area. We do this opportunistically, as what we really are looking for are wild Blanding’s juveniles.  We have found a previously unknown population of the endangered spotted turtle here, as well as many painted turtles, snapping turtles, and musk turtles. We collect information on these species too and can monitor sex ratios, numbers and general condition and location.

Turtle Survival Alliance India project also conducts much field work.  Shown is Shailendra Singh, who is the lead on this project.  OTCC has visited their sites in India to learn from their headstarting projects and exchange ideas.  This year,  Turtle Survival Alliance conference in Charleston, USA, included a full day session discussing headstarting projects globally.  OTCC was a participant and presenter at this conference.

Shailendra Singh

While there are many similarities between the field work we are doing at OTCC and the work TSA India is doing, Shailendra pointed out that it is much more difficult to get field technicians at their field sites in India.  The presence of crocodiles and tigers at the field sites, that have been known to eat people, could have something to do with it!

While our main focus is Blanding’s turtles, at our field site we often encounter many other species! Pictured below is prominent herpetologist Dr. James Paterson, who spent a week helping us in the field.  He happened upon this very indignant snapping turtle in his quest to find us wild juvenile Blanding’s. We are so thankful to experts such as James and others such as Dr. Christina Davy and Brennan Caverhill, who have offered us so much support and advice with our field endeavours. The picture to the right is Lynda Ruegg, who helped for many years, as field technician tracking the turtles.

Dr. James Paterson

Lynda Ruegg

Past OTCC Board of Directors member, Dr. Dean Middleton, releases a Blanding’s at our field site after a radio transmitter was applied. 

Our field site provides the perfect turtle habitat to study their behaviour.

Turtles tracked by OTCC start out like these painted turtles below – hatched at our centre and raised until they are large enough to hold a 5g transmitter…

About this blog

Since 2012, the Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre has conducted field research with Blanding’s turtles.  Read on as our field students and researchers share their experiences and observations.

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Assistance for this project was provided by the Government of Ontario.

The project is also supported by a private donation by volunteer Sam Conroy, and funding from the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association.