Turtles face many threats, including habitat loss, traffic mortality, and nest predation.
Many predators, such as raccoons and skunks like nothing more than to feed on some freshly laid turtle eggs. While nest predation is a natural threat, in many areas nest predators occur at higher than normal levels and they can eat most of the turtle eggs laid every year. Protecting the eggs helps give turtles a fighting chance and offsets some of the road kill that occurs every year.
One way to protect a turtle nest is through a nest cage. While nest cages can be used to protect some nests in natural areas, those on roadsides cannot be caged, since cages may interfere with traffic and the work of road maintenance crews.
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Unfortunately, gravel road shoulders make for attractive nesting locations for turtles. The loose gravel and sand make it easy for turtles to dig their nests, and sunny roadsides provide the necessary warmth the eggs need to hatch. Roadsides can be dangerous though, to both the nesting female, and the hatchlings that may end up on the road.
Another option is to collect the eggs once they have been laid and hatch them in captivity. That is what CWF is doing this year in the Ottawa area. Egg collection does require permits from the provincial government as incorrect incubation can cause the eggs to not develop or hatch.
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 in the process of laying her eggs. This can involve a lot of searching in the evening, when most 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 nights, the Turtle Team gathered more than 400 eggs from roadside nests!
The eggs are kept in a special reptile egg incubator that maintains a constant temperature. The incubator contains eggs from two species at risk: Blanding’s Turtles and Snapping Turtles.
Blanding’s Turtle eggs are oval, whereas Snapping Turtle eggs are round, like tiny ping-pong balls! Blanding’s Turtle clutches contain about a dozen eggs, whereas Snapping turtle nests contain 30-40 or more eggs. The eggs from each nest are placed in a separate container filled with damp vermiculite, an artificial potting soil mixture.
For most kinds of turtles, the sex of the hatchlings depends on the temperature of the nest. Colder summers will generally produce more male turtle hatchlings, whereas hot weather will lead to more females hatching out. Our incubator is set to a temperature somewhere in the middle to produce a roughly equal mix of male and female hatchlings.
The first eggs of the year were collected in early June, and will hopefully start to hatch in early August. After the eggs hatch, the hatchlings from each nest will be released near the site of their nest and close to water.
Road mortality and habitat destruction are some of the greatest threats facing turtles today. Protecting nests through caging and off-site incubation is an important step we can take to help preserve turtle populations.