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EASTERN SPINY SOFTSHELL TURTLE
POSTED ON BEHALF OF ECOACTION 2000, ENVIRONMENT CANADA - ONTARIO
LONDONERS LEARN HOW TO SAVE SOFTSHELL TURTLES
A London, Ontario, environmental group is proving that you don't need
a degree in biology or a pair of hip waders to save an endangered
species. All you need is a keen eye and the will to make a difference
to the life of another creature -- even one as obscure as the Eastern
Spiny Softshell Turtle.
"We have lots of information about tigers and panda bears and wolves
... but very few people know about endangered species in their own
back yards," says Dave Martin of London's McIlwraith Field
Naturalists. But a multi-year program to protect softshell turtle
habitat on the Thames and Sydenham Rivers is beginning to change that.
Martin sees the softshell turtles' plight as a unique opportunity to bring
life to the concept of preserving endangered species in our own back
yards. Landowners, sport fishers, boaters and even municipal planners
are getting into the act.
"Turtles have a kind of neat image," Martin says of the water-loving
creatures that locals have come to recognize through "wanted"
posters. The softshells are particularly engaging because of their
character traits and distinctive looks.
It is easy to distinguish the softshells from other turtles. The males
have olive green shells rimmed with dull amber and marked with black
Their backs are rubbery, flat and nearly round rather than hard, domed
and elliptical like other turtles. Their long snouts double as
snorkels when basking in shallow water. Females of the species can
grow to roughly the size of a dinner plate, while males don't usually
get bigger than a salad plate.
These turtles live in rivers and around lake shorelines. They winter in
deep pools and bask in shallow, sunny places in summer. They need
grass-free areas of gravel or sand to dig small holes for their
The turtles' wariness, combined with encroaching urbanization, has
led to their declining numbers in Southern Ontario. Because they are
cold-blooded reptiles, they need to bask in the summer sun to raise
their metabolism enough to digest food. Passing hikers or boaters can
easily scare them away. This can prevent females from getting enough
nutrition to lay sufficient numbers of eggs, which are easy marks for
Under the umbrella of endangered species, the Eastern Spiny Softshell
Turtles fall into a subcategory called "threatened", which means
that, unless their situation changes, they will be in danger of being
pushed out of southern Ontario altogether.
The Softshell Recovery Team began in 1994 by enlisting the whole
community in a quest to protect the turtles. Major partners in the
project are the Field Naturalists and the Upper Thames River
Conservation Authority. Sources of funds include Environment Canada's
Action 21 Community Funding Program, which so far has contributed
about $70,000 to the continuing effort.
In 1995, the Softshell Recovery Team began studying the turtles' habitat
needs on the Thames and Sydenham Rivers. In 1996 and 1997, the focus
was on rehabilitating nest sites, protecting nests from predators and
gauging the hatch success rate. The work was expanded to compare
softshell nesting success on the rivers with those Long Point on
Since 1996, the team has been working with local landowners to keep
track of the softshells and to protect their nesting and basking
sites. This was how the team discovered the turtles' range is much
farther than recorded in any previous scientific literature. When a
landowner spotted a turtle basking a good 30 kilometres way from the
location where she had been fitted with a radio transmitter, it was
the first step in debunking the existing theory that these reptiles
had ranges of only two or three kilometres.
"The ultimate goal is protection, so we have to learn a little bit about
what they do..." explains Martin. This is the first long-term,
comprehensive effort to study the turtles in Ontario.
In 1998, project staff are continuing to work with landowners
to develop and protect nesting and basking sites. Eventually, the
group hopes to produce a landowner's manual on softshell habitat
protection. Even municipal planners have been brought into the
turtle-saving effort by ensuring that such things as bicycle paths
along the Thames River don't come too close to turtle nests.
To find out how you can help the Eastern Spiny Softshell Turtle survive
in Southern Ontario, contact Michelle Fletcher at 519-451-2800,
The softshell turtle recovery program is one of more than 100
Ontario initiatives that have received partial funding from the
Action 21 Community Funding Program since its inception in 1995.
Recently renamed EcoAction 2000, the federal government program
encourages non-profit organizations to take environmental action at
the local level. To be eligible, projects must have matching funds or
in-kind support, respond to community needs and have measurable
environmental results. Funding applications are continually being
accepted for deadlines that fall on May 1, October 1 and February 1.
Partners in the softshell turtle recovery program include: Canada
Trust Friends of the Environment, World Wildlife Fund, Lower Thames
Valley, Upper Thames River and St. Clair Region Conservation
Authorities, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, Committee on the
Status of Species at Risk in Ontario (COSSARO), and Job Creation
Partnerships through Human Resources Canada.
To find out more about EcoAction 2000 funding in Ontario and how
your community group can qualify, contact the EcoAction information
line at 1-800-661-7785, or email to: firstname.lastname@example.org. See the
EcoAction 2000 web site on Environment Canada's Green Lane at