Turtles need crossing guards to help them survive on Quebec roads

June is a dangerous month for turtles.

It’s then that the females hit the road — figuratively and literally. They leave the relative safety of their wetlands habitats, including rivers, lakes and ponds, to search out a spot to lay their eggs. You might see them on sand or gravel road shoulders — and that’s a behaviour that puts them at risk for being struck by passing vehicles, said Caroline Gagné, a biologist with the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC).

Quebec has eight native species of turtle: The Blanding’s turtle, map turtle, musk turtle, painted turtle, snapping turtle, spotted turtle, spiny softshell turtle and wood turtle. To help reduce their mortality rate on the roads, the NCC developed a website for reporting turtle sightings, carapace.ca.

In 2017, the project’s first year, 500 people reported 856 turtles belonging to five native species as well as a couple of exotic species that had been purchased in pet shops and were let loose by their owners, Gagné said. Nearly half were in the Montérégie and Outaouais regions, said Gagné, the Carapace project’s co-ordinator, with the Laurentians and Eastern Townships next in line. Fifty-five turtles were found dead and 15 wounded.

The website asks anyone who spots turtles to photograph them and note their location on a short form.

“The goal is to document the problem of death on the roads,” Gagné said. It is complicated and expensive for scientists to do that. “And you have to be in the right place at the right time,” she said. A platform such as carapace.ca encourages citizen science; it makes it possible, she explained, to cover a large territory without specialists or material.

The site also describes how to help a turtle spotted on a road by guiding it to safety: it’s important not to change the direction in which the turtle is facing, Gagné explained. If the turtle is big or seems aggressive — turtles can bite — then it’s best to urge the turtle into a pail or onto a car mat that is then dragged across the road, she said.

Exotic species that are sighted had presumably been released by their owners into the wild, where they compete with native turtles for food and habitat, said Gagné. Turtles live a long time, with a lifespan comparable to humans, and people should think long and hard before buying turtles in pet shops, she said.

Turtles take a long time to reproduce, with some species mating only after 25 years. The number of eggs laid varies from one species to another, from a handful to a couple dozen, but predation means that only two per cent of eggs laid survive to adulthood, Gagné explained.

Turtle mortality is linked mainly to their habitat destruction, as development means that rivers, lakes and ponds are filled in, Gagné said. The NCC works to safeguard that habitat. “The protection of turtles is key to their survival,” she said.

The NCC, a not-for-profit private land conservation organization, works to protect natural areas and the species they sustain. Since 1962, the NCC and its partners have helped protect more than 1.1 million hectares (2.8 million acres) across Canada, including 45,000 hectares (111,197 acres) in Quebec.

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