Fieldwork Program & Blog2022-05-27T13:22:49-04:00

Fieldwork Program & Blog

OTCC Fieldwork

Friends and Collaborations

Field Blog

OTCC Fieldwork Program

The Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre has been conducting field research since 2012. This is work done outside of the centre, as 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 locations, movement patterns and hibernation sites 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 head start 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 turtles’ shells (which is not painful, and does not disturb them) and using a receiver to follow the ‘beep’ it emits. This is done weekly to pinpoint where they travel. Once a month, they are weighed and their condition is assessed – otherwise, they are left completely alone.

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

The headstarted Blanding’s turtles that we are following come from eggs collected from patients admitted to our hospital. Some juveniles are released at about 100 g and others at 300 g of weight. The goal is to compare their behaviour, growth and overall survival, to a group of their wild-hatched counterparts. We headstart a great many babies at our centre (currently we hatch about 3000 eggs per year!) 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 are eaten by predators such as raccoons and do not make it to hatching. Even of those turtles that do hatch, most 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. Turtles have survived over 200 million years with this life history strategy only because adult turtles naturally have extremely low mortality rates, 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.

Turtles tracked by OTCC start out as 5 g hatchlings – incubated and hatched at our centre and raised until they are large enough to hold a 5 g transmitter.

Once they reach 100 g or 300 g, headstarted juvenile Blanding’s turtles are ready for release!

Along with our regular field crew, we sometimes get some very qualified assistance – pictured here is Monte Hummel, President Emeritus of World Wildlife Fund, who brought 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 headstarting indeed a viable conservation strategy for freshwater turtles in Ontario? We are adding to the collective understanding 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 turtle hatchlings, and this information can only be obtained by studying the field site itself. We started by following a group of wild Blanding’s turtle adults in this region, in an effort to locate wild juveniles to track. We discovered that the wild adults actually don’t seem to frequent the same places as the juveniles, and tend to travel throughout a much broader area. The juveniles weighing 100 g only travel a very short distance over the course of an entire 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 released at 300 g traveled much farther, and therefore should have a greater ability to avoid predation. We have found that the headstarted Blanding’s turtles of both sizes 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 these larger juveniles, as they like to travel to some very inaccessible places!

Our goal for this study is to follow these turtles through until they are sexually mature, and to determine if 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 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, general condition and location.

Friends, Collaborations, and Other Species

Our field program has been so successful because of our friends and collaborators! We are so thankful to experts such as Dr. James Paterson, Dr. Christina Davy and Brennan Caverhill, who have offered us so much support and advice with our field endeavours.

While looking for juvenile Blanding’s turtles at our field site, we often encounter other species! We use these sightings to opportunistically conduct population surveys on all turtle species present in this area. 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, general condition and location.

Prominent herpetologist Dr. James Paterson 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!

Lynda Ruegg helped for many years as field technician tracking the turtles.

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

Turtle Survival Alliance India Project

Turtle Survival Alliance India project also conducts much fieldwork. 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. In 2017 the 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.

Once they reach 100 g or 300 g, headstarted juvenile Blanding’s turtles are ready for release!

While there are many similarities between the fieldwork 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!

Fieldwork Blog

Since 2012, the Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre has conducted field research with Blanding’s turtles. Keep up-to-date with our field students and researchers as they share their experiences and observations.

2020 Field Season Thus Far, by April DeJong

By |August 4th, 2020|Categories: Research, Tracking|

Hello all! As many of you know the field team is out and about tracking juvenile head-started, wild, and translocated Blanding’s turtles, via radio telemetry. We started off the 2020 season tracking 19 turtles [...]

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Making Connections (COVID-19 & ranavirus)

By |June 19th, 2020|Categories: Research, Tracking|

By Lisa Browning As the world deals with the COVID-19 pandemic, it reminds me of the many diseases and viruses that animals are faced with, including turtles. Ranavirus infects amphibians, fish, and reptiles, [...]

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Encounters, by Kelton Adderley Heron

By |July 24th, 2019|Categories: Research|

Our everyday adventures lead us to witness unique species throughout unique environments. From deep open water to shallow mud channels, over land to diminishing ephemeral pools, Blanding’s turtles travel and travel far. Most are [...]

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