[Date Prev][Date Next][Date Index]





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 
marauding raccoons.

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 
Lake Erie.

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, 
extension 236.

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: ecoaction2000@ec.gc.ca. See the 
EcoAction 2000 web site on Environment Canada's Green Lane at