The Next Extinction Level Event — Is It Already Here?

Are we witnessing a mass extinction?

Life began on Earth 3.8 billion years ago. Since then it’s been through a lot — including five mass extinctions.

That last extinction occurred 65 million years ago when it is believed that a six mile wide asteroid hit the earth killing off the dinosaurs. Many scientists agree that the next mass extinction might happen sooner rather than later — as in, it’s already underway.

The Sixth Extinction

Vancouver Island Marmot

You see, species are going extinct at a rate that this planet has never seen before. According to The Sixth Extinction – An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert, we’re losing some species 45,000 times faster than we ever did before. With the rate we’re going, we could lose between 20 to 50 per cent of our species within the century.

We could lose between 20 to 50 per cent of our species within the century.

Scientists believe that one-third of freshwater mollusks, sharks and coral reefs are well on their way to vanishing from our waters. Moreover, a quarter of our mammals, a fifth of our reptiles and a sixth of our birds are on their way out too. And every time another species goes extinct, we are all witnessing something we shouldn’t be able to witness.

The Cause? You Guessed It…

city smog

Why in the world are we headed in this downward spiral? Sadly, the culprit is largely because of you and I.

Humans have really taken over. Our population is exploding and we are digging our grubby fingers into things all over the globe — tinkering with the soil, water, air and more.

Think about it, since the industrial revolution we’ve added nearly 365 billion metric tons of carbon to the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels, and 180 billion tons more by cutting down forests. We’re also placing dams in our rivers, fishing immense amounts of the ocean’s fish, and using more and more of the world’s water.

Plus, thanks to us, species are getting around in a way that would never have been possible just a few short centuries ago. Species are being transported in airplanes and cargo vessels from one continent to another, introducing a range of invasive species that put native species at risk.

The Cost of Convenience

What we need is a little bit of perspective. So many of our decisions are based on convenience and making life easier that we forget to ask ourselves — but at what cost? Who will pay the price? It might be the brightly coloured butterflies that visit your garden every spring. Or the majestic whales that have swam our oceans for centuries. Are we really willing to risk losing these beautiful creatures?

Reviewing the Risks: The Latest Assessments at the COSEWIC Meeting

Three Canadian species at risk of disappearing from Canada are…

The assessment of 22 wildlife species by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) in November has highlighted a need for provincial and federal governments to work towards preventing the loss of Canada’s native species.  COSEWIC found the risk status of three species at risk of disappearing from Canada – the Polar Bear, Black Ash tree and Chinook Salmon.

Polar Bear

Polar Bear

These gorgeous bears rely on seal hunting to survive. However, scientists are predicting longer Arctic summers which will make hunting this crucial prey harder. Inuit are hopeful that Polar Bears will be able to adapt and that this ability may save this at-risk bear. The Committee has listed the bear as of Special Concern.

Chinook Salmon

The Chinook salmon migration to the Upper Yukon River must travel around the Whitehorse Rapids Generating Facility via a 300 m long fish ladder. A viewing chamber partway through the ladder provides an incredible opportunity for the public to observe Chinook salmon as they approach spawning grounds

Did you know that Chinook Salmon complete the longest migration in Canada? Sadly, their journey is wrought with challenges and threats along the way.  The committee found 13 populations to be in significant decline and has listed eight populations as Endangered, four as Threatened and one as of Special Concern.

“As a founding member of the Committee for the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, CWF is concerned that 13 of the 16 population groups of Chinook Salmon assessed from southern British Columbia are at risk of extinction,” says David Browne, CWF Director of Conservation Science. “Declining quality of marine and freshwater habitat is sighted as a key factor. This is yet more reason to invest in habitat restoration and protection in the Fraser River watershed and address the Cohen Commission recommendations. This is also sad news for Southern Resident Killer Whales as their main prey, Fraser River Chinook Salmon, are determined to be at risk of extinction by Canada’s experts.”

Black Ash

Black ash leaves
@ Keith Kanoti

The malicious Emerald Ash Borer has wedeled its way into many forests in Canada. This invasive species has wiped out approximately two billion trees in North America and has no intention of slowing down (or showing much mercy).

It’s unclear how the 162 million Black Ash trees still standing will survive, and so the committee listed the tree as Threatened. Black Ash are a very important tree to our forests. They’re the most widely distributed trees in Canada and are used to make commercial items like baskets, furniture, flooring and snowshoes.

What You Can Do

upload observations to inaturalist.ca
Upload observations to iNaturalist.ca

The last thing we’d want is for you to feel helpless after reading the state of some of Canada’s wildlife. That’s why, we’ve got plenty that you can do to help!  Did you know 13 of the 22 species assessed have been observed by iNaturalist users? You can help to inform assessments of other species by downloading the iNaturalist app and be part of Canada’s biodiversity monitoring team!

 

Santa’s Got Company

The Arctic tundra is a fascinating area between the edge of the boreal forest and the permanent ice caps closer to the North Pole.

This areas spans across Yukon, the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Northeastern Manitoba, Northern Ontario, Northern Quebec and Northern Labrador. Such a vast and harsh arctic climate is home to a limited variety of species that must adapt to the long, cold months and major snow fall.

The Great White Bear

polar bears

The North Pole wouldn’t be complete without the Polar Bear. Unfortunately, the Polar Bear is a species at-risk in the tundra. One of the main threats is climate change which is impacting the sea ice patterns. Sea ice patterns doesn’t sound like a big deal but the Polar Bears, along with many other species at-risk rely on the ice for migration and foraging. When the ice is sparse, it can result in famine and even death.

The Arctic Fox

arctic fox

The Arctic Fox is another common and welcomed sight in the tundra. This mammal perfectly adapts to the harsh conditions by changing the colour of its fur from a brownish-grey to white in the winter months. They also use their thick bushy tails as a warm cover to protect themselves from the harsh cold wind. The Artic Fox, like many other fox species, will travel long distances in search of food like lemmings, birds and their eggs, leftover carcasses and even plants.

Arctic Hare

arctic hare

Like the Arctic Fox, the Arctic Hare have adapted to survive the tundra. They sport short ears, black eyelashes that protect the eye from the glaring sun, and have incredibly thick fur that changes from a blueish-grey to white in the winter. To protect themselves from the cold and predators, the Arctic Hare will dig dens in the snow or soil which helps them conserve body heat. Here, under the snow, they can also find some winter grubs like shrubs, mosses and lichens to keep them full all winter long.

Arctic Char

arctic char

Very few fish species call the Great White North home in its coldest months. One of the fish that lives in the lakes and rivers of the tundra is the Arctic Char. It plays an important role in the tundra as these fish are an important source of food for many birds of prey in the summer and for mammals in the winter. The Arctic Char spends part of its life cycle in fresh water and the other part in salt water. However, some Arctic Char have adapted and made fresh water their primary address after become land locked.

Birds in the Tundra

Greater White-fronted Geese © Nathan Clements
Greater White-fronted Geese | Oies rieuses © Nathan Clements

Birds are the most diverse group in the tundra! It is home to important birds like the Common Eider, Thick-billed Murre and the Arctic Tern. These birds primarily live near the Arctic Ocean and rely on the marine environment for some grubs to feast on.

Plants and Fungi

tundra
@ Martin Prentice

When you think of life in the tundra, plant and fungi aren’t exactly the first thing to come to mind. There are nearly 2,000 species of plants, mosses, sedges, grasses and flowering plants thriving there! Adaptation isn’t only for birds and mammals, plants in the tundra have adapted to shorter growing seasons, lack of humidity and low nutrient level in the soil. Plants grow shorter and closer to the soil which aids when tumultuous windstorms arise. Huddling together for warmth isn’t only for mammals! Plants have adapted to grow huddled together to stay warm.

Celebrating World Soil Day

“Essentially, all life depends on the soil … There can be no life without soil and no soil without life; they have evolved together.”
~Charles E. Kellogg

 

These words of Charles Kellogg are as pertinent today as they were in 1938 when he was quoted. Ask any farmer what is the most important thing that sustains agriculture, and most will tell you soil health.

farmer field snow soil

Truth: Healthy Soil is a “Must” for Agriculture

Why is that? Well, among many things, healthy soils support sustainable food production – for humans as well as for all terrestrial species. Even predators need healthy soil. Healthy soil produces healthy food for their prey.

Healthy soil also helps to control erosion and reduce impacts of drought and flooding.  It cleans and stores freshwater. These are essential functions to supporting life on earth.

And yet, most of us give soil no more than a passing thought. This is probably because the goings on in the soil are invisible to the eye. There are no mega fauna underground.

There are billions of microflora in soil going about their daily business of supporting all terrestrial life on the globe.

Truth: The Greatest Amount of Biodiversity is Found in Soil

When it comes to biodiversity, no other structure on earth is more diverse than soil.

A single gram of soil can support up to 100 billion bacterial cells and an estimate of up to 500,000 species.

And that is only bacteria. The diversity of fungus in soil is immense; fungi make up 90 per cent of the total biomass and in forest soils and 50 per cent in agricultural soils.

Other microflora include actinomycetes, fungi and protozoa. Larger soil fauna include mites, springtails, earthworms, nematodes, ants, termites, many insects and larger organisms such as burrowing mammals.

Truth: Soil Helps Regulate Climate and Climate Change

If the important functions of soil were not enough to elevate the status of soil in your eyes, how about the fact that soil helps to regulate climate and holds a key to mitigating climate change? Soil organisms regulate the dynamics of soil organic matter and soil carbon sequestration. Soil organic carbon captures carbon from the atmosphere and plants then fix carbon in the soil.

Human activities have degraded soil organic carbon.

It is estimated that one third of the world’s soils are now degraded and this has caused the release of 100 Gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere.

Canada is not immune to degradation of soil carbon. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada keeps track of Soil Organic Carbon. The situation has improved in Prairie Canada over the past few decades but has worsened in eastern Canada. See Agri-Food website for an interactive map of soil carbon in Canadian agricultural lands.

Let’s Make Soil Healthy Again!

So what can be done to restore soils to optimal health?

  • crop rotation
  • cover crops
  • ending the destructive practices of draining wetlands
  • stop harvesting peatlands
  • protecting native grasslands: grasslands are a powerhouse of carbon sequestration, storing more than twice the carbon than any other agricultural use.

Healthy soils are so important to life on earth that the United Nations declared World Soil Day to be December 5. This day is an opportunity to celebrate healthy soils and to resolve ourselves to support the restoration of soil health in all countries around the world – for biodiversity, food security and climate change mitigation.

Learn more Canada’s Forests & Fields and how to help.

Over 83,000 CWF Supporters Have Joined With Half a Million Canadians Who Want Neonics Gone

Concerned citizens are calling for an immediate ban on bee-killing neonic pesticides in Canada.

Ottawa concluded consultations on the latest neonic risk assessments on Tuesday, November 13, 2018.

Experts Agree

On this issue, the Canadian Wildlife Federation joined with 13 conservation, environmental health and advocacy groups, including the Ontario Beekeepers’ Association. Together we called on the federal government to end the use of neonicotinoid insecticides in Canada without further delay.

While the groups support the federal government’s proposed ban on neonics, they urge the government to accelerate the timeline to protect pollinators, aquatic insects and other beneficial species. An urgent ban is needed to prevent endangerment of the environment.

Since 2013, more than 460,000 people in Canada have participated in various campaigns to ban neonics, signing petitions and writing letters to the federal government in support of a timely ban. Over the last few months, CWF supporters added over 83,000 to this growing list of concerned citizens by supporting our five-step plan to not just ban neonics, but also work with farmers and policy-makers and help the environment recover from the devastating effects of these pesticides.

The Risks are Unacceptable

This week, Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) concluded public consultations on proposals to phase out the neonics clothianidin and thiamethoxam in three to five years. In 2016, the PMRA proposed to phase out a third neonic, imidacloprid — a decision that has yet to be finalized. The results? The risks from most uses of neonics are unacceptable.

The proposed slow-motion phase-out of the main neonics would allow their use to continue until 2023 or beyond, even though environmental risks have been shown to be unacceptable. This unjustifiable delay will lead to further widespread and preventable ecological damage and is contrary to the pesticides law Health Canada is bound to uphold.

In contrast, the European Union’s new comprehensive ban will enter into effect in December 2018, just seven months after member states approved regulations. In France, a full ban on neonics has been in place since September 1, 2018.

“The science on neonicotinoids is in. Banning neonicotinoids is the only option if we are to avoid long-lasting serious impacts on the very ecosystems that support farming in Canada. ”
Carolyn Callaghan, Canadian Wildlife Federation

CWF’s five step plan includes:

  • Calling for a ban on the use of neonics
  • Recovering affected species
  • Encouraging research and development of safer pest control technologies
  • Supporting farmers in transitioning to alternatives
  • Advocating for reform to how government protects our food supply

For more information, visit BanWithAPlan.org

 

Going, going….gone: Which animals are on the brink and how can we save them?

There are 700 species at risk of extinction. Which animals are on the brink and how can we save them?

Canada has such a rich biodiversity that it can be surprising to hear that more than 700 species are at risk of extinction. But sadly it’s true. While the future may seem bleak for these species, it doesn’t mean things can’t change for the better. Just look, for instance, at the Peregrine Falcon, White-top Aster, Buffalograss and the Shorthead Sculpin — their situations have all improved!

Let’s see if we can turn things around for these species below that are currently assessed as Endangered by Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), a committee that provides advice to government on the status of wildlife species at risk of extinction.

Leatherback Sea Turtle

leatherback sea turtle
There are many threats facing this species including a high predation rate on hatchlings, egg poachers, entanglement in fishing gear, collisions with boats and marine pollution.

(Atlantic population + Pacific population)
Endangered

Leatherback Sea Turtles evolved around 100 million years ago — that’s right, they were around when dinosaurs were alive! They are named after their leathery shell which is different from the hard shells of other sea turtles. They can weigh as much as 900 kilograms, making them the largest living sea turtle. Their main prey is jellyfish. Instead of teeth they have cusps that they use to grab their prey. Their esophageal tract is lined with sharp spines that work to shred jellyfish into pieces. There are many threats facing this species including a high predation rate on hatchlings, egg poachers, entanglement in fishing gear, collisions with boats and marine pollution.

Little Brown Myotis

little brown bat
It’s hard to believe that not long ago, this was the most common bat species in Canada. But since 2010, their population has declined by 94 per cent from Nova Scotia to Ontario.

Endangered

The Little Brown Myotis weighs between seven and nine grams, about the weight of eight standard paper clips! Females are slightly larger than males but otherwise they look the same. They can be found in all provinces and territories of Canada, although there are only occasional records for Nunavut. They do not usually migrate outside of Canada, but can travel up to 1,000 kilometres between their summer roosts and winter roosts.

It’s hard to believe that not long ago, this was the most common bat species in Canada. But since 2010, their population has declined by 94 per cent from Nova Scotia to Ontario. The cause — white-nose syndrome. This disease is caused by the fungus Geomyces destructans. It is believed to have originated from Europe and brought over by cave explorers. The fungus grows on their nose and other non-furred areas during their hibernation. This causes bats to wake more often than usual which rapidly uses up their fat reserves. Along with the impact this fungus has had on two other bat species, this is considered by some scientists to be the most rapid decline of mammals ever recorded. Other threats faced by the Little Brown Myotis include habitat loss and pesticides.

Burrowing Owl

burrowing owl profile
As of 2015, the Canadian population is estimated at about 270 individuals.

Endangered

Burrowing Owls are smaller than a pigeon, standing about 20 centimetres in height and weighing between 125 and 185 grams. The main Prairie population breeds in Alberta and Saskatchewan, but they can also be found in very low numbers in southwestern Manitoba. There is also a small reintroduced population in southcentral British Columbia. They have a preference for dry short-grass prairie and use abandoned burrows of ground-dwelling mammals including prairie dogs and ground squirrels for nesting, resting and storing food.

Over the past 40 years, this species faced a significant decrease in density. While the conversion of grassland to cropland may have been a significant factor for their past decline, their current threats include loss of prey, severe weather and impacts from the expansion of renewable energy. As of 2015, the Canadian population is estimated at about 270 individuals.

Gypsy Cuckoo Bumble Bee

Endangered

Gypsy Cuckoo Bumblebees measure 12 to 18 millimetres in length. They have been found in every province and territory in Canada, except for Nunavut. However, since 1991, they have only been recorded in Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia. Their habitats include mixed farmlands, open meadows, urban areas and the boreal forest. An interesting fact about this bumble bee is that they don’t have worker bees. Mated females instead find a host nest and after killing the host queen, she lays her eggs which are then looked after by the host worker bees. The main threat to this bumble bee is the loss of host bumble bee populations including the Rusty-patched Bumble bee, Yellow-banded Bumble Bee and the Western Bumble Bee; species that are also listed as at-risk by COSEWIC.

North Atlantic Right Whale

North Atlantic right whale
Ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear are the most common causes of death for these animals and now less than 450 individuals remain in the world.

Endangered

The North Atlantic Right Whale grows to about 16 metres in length, with females measuring about one metre longer than males, and they can weigh up to 63,500 kilograms. That’s twice the weight of a transport truck and the same length as one! They come to Atlantic Canada to feed on zooplankton.

In 2017, 12 North Atlantic Right Whales died in Canadian waters representing what is likely the highest mortality event for this species since commercial whaling was banned in 1937. Ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear are the most common causes of death for these animals and now less than 450 individuals remain in the world.

Monarch Butterfly

monarch butterfly
The main threats facing this species in Canada include the use of herbicides and the loss of milkweeds.

Endangered

I think most of us are familiar with the Monarch Butterfly – that iconic orange and black butterfly. They are found in all ten provinces and the Northwest Territories. Eastern Monarchs overwinter in the mountains of Central Mexico whereas western Monarchs overwinter in coastal California. Milkweeds are extremely important as it is the only food plant for Monarch caterpillars. The chemicals found in milkweeds make the caterpillars and adults unpleasant tasting to many birds. The main threats facing this species in Canada include the use of herbicides and the loss of milkweeds.

Let’s change the seemingly bleak future for these, and all species at risk. It’s happened before, let’s do it again!

Helping At-Risk Freshwater Turtles: From Start to Finish

In June of this year, CWF’s turtle team spent many long evenings searching for turtles laying eggs.

In particular we were looking for Snapping Turtles and Blanding’s Turtles in the process of laying their eggs. Our goal was to let the females lay their eggs and afterwards we would dig up and collect the eggs to incubate them back at CWF headquarters.

Why?

Hannah moving a Blanding's Turtle @ Mackenzie Barns
Hannah moving a Blanding’s Turtle @ Mackenzie Barns

All eight of Canada’s freshwater turtles are now considered to be species at risk. Turtles face a lot of threats such as loss of wetland habitat, and traffic mortality. In many areas 50 per cent or more of turtle nests will be destroyed and eaten by predators such as raccoons. Nest predation is a natural process, but giving turtles a helping hand by protecting their nests can benefit their populations.

From Start to Finish

1. Collecting Eggs

Excavated Snapping Turtle eggs in the field
Excavated Snapping Turtle eggs in the field | Marquage des œufs de tortues hargneuses.

Collecting turtle eggs is not as easy as it may sound. After a female turtle has laid her eggs, she packs the soil back into the hole and there is often no sign of the nest. The surest way to find a turtle nest is to find the female during the few hours she is in the process of laying her eggs. This can involve a lot of searching in the evening, when turtles are most apt to lay their eggs.

Great care has to be taken not to startle the turtle, or she may abandon her search for a nesting site until another evening. Once the female has finished nesting, we carefully dig up the nest and collect the eggs. After many long and late nights, the Turtle Team gathered more than 400 eggs from roadside nests!

2. Egg Incubation

CWF Freshwater Turtle Specialist Dave Seburn shows us the turtle eggs in the incubator.
CWF Freshwater Turtle Specialist Dave Seburn shows us the turtle eggs in the incubator | Œufs dans un incubateur

The eggs were kept in a special reptile egg incubator that maintains a constant temperature. Eggs from two species at risk turtles were collected: the Blanding’s Turtle and Snapping Turtle. Blanding’s Turtle eggs are oval, whereas Snapping Turtle eggs are round, like tiny ping-pong balls. Blanding’s Turtles lay about a dozen eggs, whereas Snapping Turtles lay 30 to 40 eggs.

The eggs from each nest were placed in a separate container filled with damp vermiculite, an artificial potting soil mixture. Our first eggs began to hatch in early August, but the eggs continued to hatch over the next few weeks. Excluding the eggs which weren’t fertilized, we had about 97 per cent of the eggs hatch successfully.

3. Hatched Eggs

Blanding’s Turtles at different stages of hatching
Blanding’s Turtles at different stages of hatching | Tortues mouchetées à différentes phases d’éclosion | Tortues mouchetées à différentes étapes de l’éclosion.

When the hatchlings first emerge, they have a yolk sac attached to their bottom shell. This contains nutrients and feeds the hatchlings for the first few days of life. We kept the hatchlings until the yolk sac was absorbed and then released each clutch of hatchlings back near where the eggs were found, at the closest wetland to each nest. By the end of August we had released almost 400 hatchlings back into the wild.

4. Releasing the Hatchlings

These hatchlings still have a hard life in front of them.

The parents do not provide any care for the hatchlings, so they are on their own to find food, avoid predators and find a safe place to hibernate for the winter. Without our help though, at least half of these eggs would have simply become food for raccoons. And possibly many of the hatchlings would not have successfully made the trek to water as the eggs are often laid 100 metres or more from a wetland.

Adding more turtles to wild populations is a good start, but there are many other threats that need to be addressed to help the turtles.

Learn other ways how you can HelpTheTurtles.ca.

The Secret Lives of Bees and Wasps

I think it’s safe to say that when most of us hear about bees or wasps we think of honey, trying not to get stung or maybe even pollination.

But there is a diverse and remarkable world that awaits to be discovered when it comes to this very large group of insects.

Solitary Species

@ Sarah Coulber | CWF

For instance, did you know that Canada has hundreds of species of bees and wasps? Most are secretive in nature and are so docile that they are easy to live alongside as neighbours. They tend to live solitary lives, flying off after laying eggs in prepared cells and provisioning each with some food. Typically, solitary bees leave a mixture of pollen and nectar. Solitary wasps, however, leave immobilized prey including many pest species. This has prompted research into how the agricultural industry can support these beneficial allies.

Solitary bees and wasps make their nests in different places, from the ground to hollow stems of plants to cavities in wood made by other insects.

Social as a Bee

As for our social species that live in a colony that works together, the most common bee people think of are Honey Bees. They are best known for the honey we eat but they are not native and are bred, unlike our wild native species, many of which are more efficient pollinators!

@ Viv LynchBumblebees are also social although they have smaller colonies than Honey Bees. But did you know that bumblebees are a group of bees rather than one species? Bumblebees have lots of hairs. This helps them pollinate plants in colder weather. They are often the only bees you’ll see on cool mornings. They are also some of the insects able to buzz-pollinate certain plants like tomatoes. This involves vibrating their bodies powerfully enough to cause the flowers of some species to release its pollen.

Bee Diverse

Our bees and wasps come in all sorts of sizes and colours. This can lead to confusion if you don’t see the insect up close and don’t know what to look for. Some bees with their blue-green colouring and small size can be mistaken for flies. Hover flies are probably mistaken the most often for a bee or wasp. This group of flies, also known as Syrphid or Flower Flies, are also one of our most important pollinators in this northern climate.

Learn more about Canada’s pollinators.

Sad News About Red Rockette, the Winner of the 2013 Great Canadian Turtle Race

Which turtle would nest first?

This was the question on our minds here at CWF at the start of the Great Canadian Turtle Race. Our friends at the Canadian Sea Turtle Network applied satellite tags to ten female leatherback turtles of the coast of Nova Scotia during the summer of 2012.

And then we all eagerly watched the turtles make their way to their southern nesting grounds of U.S.A., Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Puerto Rico, Anguilla, Venezuella, Grenada, Trinidad, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana.

We were all thrilled when Red Rockette nested on a beach in Colombia called Bobalito at the end of March, making her the first to nest and the official winner of the Great Canadian Turtle Race!


As the winner of the 2013 Great Canadian Turtle Race, Red Rockette (red line in map above) was the pacemaker for the 2016 Turtle Race.

Sad News

Friends, we have sad news about our winner. Red Rockette was recently found dead on Nova Scotia’s Bay of Fundy shoreline. This was a shocking discovery for us because we recently found her again in Canadian waters, off the coast of Nova Scotia, feeding as usual.

However, this year we found her body in a very decomposed state. When marine animals are found in this kind of state, it’s hard to determine a cause of death. We are still waiting on results from the necropsy, although preliminary results indicated that they weren’t able to determine a cause of death.

Model not displaying properly for you? Tap on these gallery images instead:
Leatherback Sea Turtle facing right illustration  |  Leatherback sea turtle facing down illustration  |  Leatherback sea turtle facing left illustration

Leatherback Sea Turtles are long lived animals, and Red Rockette should have had many years left. She was incredibly agile, swimming an average speed of 53 kilometres per day during the 2012/13 race and was still in her reproductive years.

And so we’re left shaking our heads in disbelief. It’s very alarming when a mature, reproductively active female Leatherback Sea Turtle dies – especially in Canadian waters. Canada, as you may know, is one of the safer countries to visit for Leatherbacks, however, clearly we’ve still got work to do to protect these animals while they’re in our waters.

Helping Turtles Live Long and Prosper

“That’s a Blanding’s!”

Hannah, one of my supervisors, said pointing into the oncoming traffic lane as we were driving.

This was one of my first encounters with a Blanding’s Turtle. This individual was proudly sitting at the far edge of the lane, displaying the bright yellow chin and throat that is so characteristic of the species by putting its head aloft in a pose full of innocent curiosity… as a car rapidly approached.

“Oh, don’t you dare hit it,” Hannah grumbled as she flew out of the car to help the turtle.

Hannah moving a Blanding's Turtle @ Mackenzie Barns
Hannah moving a Blanding’s Turtle @ Mackenzie Barns

This particular turtle was unharmed; the driver moved to avoid it as they approached (thank you, whoever you are if you are reading this).

Unfortunately, all too often, this is not the ending to such encounters. This is one of the main reasons why all eight of the turtle species in Ontario are now listed as being at risk. Even the Painted Turtle has recently been listed.

Helping a Turtle Cross the Road

That’s where the Canadian Wildlife Federation turtle team comes in. The Canadian Wildlife Federation is in its second year of identifying places of high turtle road mortality, or “hotspots.” By surveying roads and finding these areas, we are able to inform municipalities on where it is important to put up mitigation measures to prevent further turtle deaths on the road.

The most common and simplest of these mitigations are turtle crossing signs to warn drivers of the potential hazard. We are particularly fortunate to be able to monitor areas with new signs put up this year in order to determine their effectiveness. Another common, and likely more effective, measure are fences that guide turtles and other wildlife to the nearest culvert that passes under the road.

Mapping Turtles Means Protection

As a side effect, these surveys are also helping to create more accurate maps of the current distribution of the turtles that can be found in the Ottawa area. Just this summer we have found over 600 turtles on the road.

Moving an Eastern Musk Turtle @ Mackenzie Barns
Moving an Eastern Musk Turtle @ Mackenzie Barns

One memorable find was a Musk Turtle alive at the side of the road in an area where the species had not been reported since 1947. Also, observations of some species, such as the previously mentioned endangered Blanding’s Turtle, can result in habitat protection for nearby wetlands where these turtles live.

Why Turtles?

So why should this be a concern when there are plenty of other animals being hit on the road each year?

Unlike mammals or birds, turtle species have extremely low survival rates until they are fully grown. To compensate for this, they rely on mature individuals producing hundreds of eggs over multiple decades just to replace the parents. This many eggs may sound excessive, but most of the nests are raided by predators such as foxes or raccoons before the eggs hatch.

A Blanding’s Turtle just hatched
A Blanding’s Turtle just hatched | Une tortue mouchetée après l’éclosion

For the hatchlings that do make it out of the nest, they are then faced with the task of surviving 10 to 20 years before they can start producing offspring of their own. Because of this, the death of any individual adult is a serious loss to the population.

How to Help Turtles

Although we are doing our best to help the turtles in the Ottawa area, they can always use more help. By assisting turtles crossing the road (see “How to (Safely) Move a Turtle across The Road”), or even slowing down around wetlands, we can all help prevent turtle road mortalities.

Also, submitting sightings of turtles, alive or dead, either online or through apps like iNaturalist is also beneficial. Just submit a photo and the location to help ensure a prosperous future for our turtles.

Learn other ways how you can HelpTheTurtles.ca.