Nesting season means more turtles crossing roads in Quebec's Eastern Townships

·3 min read
Biologist Mélanie Roy holds a juvenile painted turtle, the most common turtle in the Eastern Townships. (Holly Mueller/CBC - image credit)
Biologist Mélanie Roy holds a juvenile painted turtle, the most common turtle in the Eastern Townships. (Holly Mueller/CBC - image credit)

Knowlton resident Jessica Brown was driving into Sutton, Que., about a week ago when she noticed what looked like "a big pile of dirt on the road."

Brown said she slowed down because she knew it was turtle season. And sure enough, as she got closer, she saw a giant snapping turtle about 30 centimetres long.

"I was afraid he was going to get squished," she said.

Brown decided to pull over to the side of the road and got out of her car to try to encourage the reptile to move to the shoulder, but the turtle would not budge.

She said she was too afraid to touch it herself, but eventually, a passerby came along, picked it up and managed to move it onto the grass.

With nesting season in full swing, turtles are starting to come out to lay their eggs and are at risk of getting hit by cars when they cross the road.

Importance of taking action

"It's the main time of the year where we're most likely to see turtles, because they are moving a lot," explained Mélanie Roy, a biologist at a non-profit conservation organization called Appalachian Corridor that operates in southeastern Quebec.

"Females in particular, they look for good sites to lay their eggs."

Holly Mueller/CBC
Holly Mueller/CBC

In the span of just a couple of days, Roy has spotted five dead turtles that were hit by cars. One of them was carrying eggs.

"It's a subject that breaks my heart," she said.

Roy said citizens should report any turtle sightings to the website and take a picture of the animal, to help biologists identify the problematic areas for the turtles.

She said people should stop and help the animals if it's safe to do so.

"You can [act] like a traffic controller and signal the presence of the turtle to [the other drivers]."

If the danger of crossing is imminent, Roy said people can pick up the animal and move it. But they should do so with gloves, only touch the back of the shell, and most importantly, always cross in the direction that the animal was attempting.

A threatened species

The Eastern Townships is home to three turtle species: the snapping turtle, which is the largest, the painted turtle, and the wood turtle, according to Roy. The first two are at risk of becoming endangered, while the last one is considered a vulnerable species in Quebec, Roy explained.

Biologist Francisco Ratamal Diaz, who works at the Nature Conservancy of Canada in Gatineau, Que., said it's most common to see them on roads near wetlands.

One thing that puts turtles particularly at risk is that they take a long time to reach sexual maturity and then reproduce, according to Ratamal Diaz.

That means they have to survive for at least 10 to 15 years before they can start reproducing, depending on the species.

And because females are usually the ones crossing the roads to lay their eggs, more of them are killed compared to males, creating an unequal ratio among the surviving population, he said.

To make matters worse, Ratamal Diaz said about 98 per cent of turtle eggs are eaten by raccoons, skunks and foxes.

That makes protecting female turtles crossing the road even more crucial, he said.

Mowing lawns, water pollution, climate change and invasive species are all other threats to the survival of Quebec's native turtles, Roy said.

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