The Toronto Zoo has something we might refer to as celebrimals (a.k.a. celebrity animals.) There’s Charles the silverback gorilla, Twiga the Masai Giraffe, and of course the new baby polar bear Hudson.
I had the pleasure of meeting with Bob Johnson, the Curator of Amphibians and Reptiles, and his staff members Julia and Crystal, who work for the Zoo's Adopt-A-Pond Wetland Conservation Programme. We discussed the important role the Greenbelt plays in protecting threatened species such as the Blanding's Turtle.
Courtesy of the Toronto Zoo's Adopt-A-Pond Programme
The main threat to the Blanding’s Turtle is habitat loss, largely through suburban development. This overarching threat creates many others:
- Road construction fragments the landscape, and creates ample opportunity for road mortality.
- Landfills created by suburban development increase the urban predator populations, such as raccoons and skunks.
- Invasive species, such as the Red-Eared Slider turtle, compete with native species for food, nesting habitat, overwintering sites and open spaces to bask, an extremely important activity for turtles (if you’ve ever had a pet turtle, it was probably one of these guys. Many people don’t realize that turtles' have an extremely long life span, and so they end up releasing them into the wild. Red-Eared Sliders are considered one of the World’s Most Invasive Species.)
- Garbage like those little plastic rings from the tops of juice containers and fishing line can seriously tangle around baby or adult turtles. Plastic bags can be swallowed.
- Pesticides, PCBs and common household items that are poured down the sink (bleach, hair-dye, paint, even your common chemical soaps, shampoos and other beauty products) end up in ponds where turtles areliterally wallowing in it. These chemicals negatively impact skin, bone and egg development.
- As Blanding’s turtles can live to be 80 years old, they are particularly prone to bioaccumulation.
This is where the Greenbelt steps in. The Greenbelt prevents suburban sprawl. It facilitates the creation of green corridors so wildlife can move freely through urban areas.
But curator Bob Johnson appreciates the Greenbelt for an entirely different reason: because it fosters a kinship with everyone and everything in the Greenbelt. It promotes awareness of the important linkages between our lives and the lives of a turtle. Simply put, Bob likes the culture of the Greenbelt.
Crystal took me into the field to track young Colin.
Colin lives in Rouge Park, which borders the Toronto Zoo. He is a wild-born turtle, native to Ontario. He was discovered as a juvenile, a fortunate but uncommon event since juvenile turtles tend to stay well hidden until they are big and fast enough to avoid lurking predators. Using a fancy antennae tracking device, we found Colin - although he was hiding in the depths of a pond as it wasn’t a sunny enough day for basking. The Zoo staff track Colin at least once a week to see where he’s been and what his favourite spots are.
Blanding’s turtles are considered an umbrella species – animals that indicate the overall health of an ecosystem. Essentially, if it’s good for the Blanding’s, it’s good for most other species within that area. That is why it's imperative to gather this seemingly minute data in order to determine if this restored wetland is providing the proper environment for a healthy ecosystem and a healthy turtle population.
Blanding’s are unique in the turtle world, as they roam much farther than most. This makes it necessary to have access to large, uninterrupted tracts of land. They will travel over 3km between their summer residence, their overwintering site and their favourite egg laying spot. This particular group of Blanding's in the Rouge is a historic remnant population from the GTA before there was a GTA.
Here are a few things you can do to help protect the Blanding’s Turtle:
- Report turtle sightings to the Ontario Turtle Tally
- Help a turtle cross the road
- Talk a walk in the Rouge – but be sure to take your trash with you, and keep your dog on a leash! Dogs will often dig up turtle eggs.
- Participate in a shoreline clean-up
- Buy local food – local food is better for the environment, and Bob finds farmers to be the most receptive conservationists, doing what they can to protect the Blanding’s by building turtle fences or leaving a few rows unplanted for them to nest.
- Emma "Moe" Berrigan, Communications Assistant