How did Shimmy the 2-footed turtle get from Lake Erie to Burlington?

Shimmy, a Blanding's turtle, was found at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington after previously being spotted on the north shore of Lake Erie. (Royal Botanical Gardens/Supplied - image credit)
Shimmy, a Blanding's turtle, was found at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington after previously being spotted on the north shore of Lake Erie. (Royal Botanical Gardens/Supplied - image credit)

Shimmy, a Blanding's turtle, spent the first 35 years of his life, give or take, on the north shore of Lake Erie.

He'd been tracked numerous times by biologists there, who remarked on his "odd characteristics": two missing feet, at the front left and rear right.

So, when Shimmy, whose species is classified as "threatened" in Ontario, showed up in Hendrie Valley at the Royal Botanical Gardens (RBG) in Burlington, Ont., how he managed to traverse more than 100 kilometres of roads, towns and farmland presented a mystery.

There's no way any such creature could cover that distance on its own, says RBG species-at-risk biologist Sarah Richer – not to mention a turtle missing two feet.

"He definitely didn't make it here on his own," says Richer. "He was turtle-napped. He would have been kidnapped from his wetland."

The Blanding's turtle has a domed shell and yellow markings on its throat, chin and underside. Its population on the RBG lands is struggling – it sits at about 20 to 25 turtles, says Richer – and has been the subject of significant monitoring and conservation efforts there as a result.

Tracking the population is done through live traps, where turtles are caught humanely and their shells marked for future identification, and through old-school observation, often conducted by volunteers. One such volunteer, Catherine Shimmell, first observed the turtle on an RBG path in 2012, which is how he got the name Shimmy – "If you find the turtle, you get to name it," says Richer. Shimmy was then caught in a monitoring trap in 2017, leading Richer to wonder about the distinct notches in his shell, which didn't look like the markings used by RBG biologists.

Royal Botanical Gardens/Supplied
Royal Botanical Gardens/Supplied

After poring through the RBG's turtle records and finding no matches, Richer reached out on a Facebook group for herpetologists – amphibian and reptile experts – and heard back right away from Scott Gillingwater, a species-at-risk biologist for the Upper Thames River Conservation Authority in London, Ont.

Gillingwater could tell that he or colleague Raymond Saumure had previously caught Shimmy, as they are among the few in their discipline to use round files to notch the turtles' shell for future identification. He looked into his records and found Saumure had marked Shimmy in 1993, and Gillingwater had recaptured Shimmy twice in 2003, and then also in 2004 and 2007.

"It was a large adult when found it in 1993, which means it would have been at least 20 years old at that time (likely much older)," he later wrote in an email. "Today, it would be a minimum of 50 years old, possibly many decades older than that."

He says he knew right away that someone must have moved the turtle, something he comes across frequently in his work.

"You do find a few animals randomly in strange places," he told CBC Hamilton. "It's unfortunate that anyone would move a turtle… Taking that turtle away from where it was from originally can cause a number of problems."

Those include spreading disease and decreasing the "genetic potential" of the turtle in the area that it was taken from, he says. On a micro level, moving a turtle makes it harder for that individual to hibernate, breed and survive, as turtles typically are very familiar with their surroundings and would have to learn the lay of the land in a new place.

Richer, from the RBG, says moving a turtle – or any wildlife – "is morally dubious at best and not in the animal's best interest… I am frankly a little worried there is someone who's doing this on purpose."

Royal Botanical Gardens/Supplied
Royal Botanical Gardens/Supplied

She adds that while "it's unusual to come across new individuals among a population that's been so heavily trapped," the RBG has found several new Blanding's turtles in recent years, now named Mika, Callie, Jenny and Etta.

Gillingwater worries that someone thinks they're helping the struggling Blanding's population at the RBG by relocating animals from Lake Erie, where they are more plentiful.

Richer says it's also possible someone took Shimmy home as a pet, then let him loose at RBG when they no longer wanted him.

"Blanding's turtles are remarkably docile and they're adorable," she says, adding that while it's a good idea to move a turtle off the road, it's not at all wise to move it very far. "When a turtle is in an unsafe area, we want people to intervene, but.. please do not relocate turtles to a different wetland."