By Leora Berman

Turtles, especially Ontario’s common snapping turtles, are often misunderstood and their importance to our health, wealth and overall wellbeing is very much underestimated.

Turtles are known as keystone species; meaning that they are the foundation of food webs, holding up entire ecosystems- in a sense they can be considered founders of aquatic habitats. They are also active agents in supporting lake health. The unique roles and behaviours of turtles, cannot be replicated or replaced.

Juvenile turtles scour lakes looking for protein, and will choose sources that are easy to access. This ready bounty is mainly in the form of carrion. They will “clean up” all the dead pollywogs, frogs and fish that did not survive the winter, and have also been known to consume carcasses of other unfortunates including beaver or even moose that have somehow reached their “end” in the lake- and of all the turtles, the snapping turtle, is the best janitor for our lakes. Therefore, turtles, but especially snapping turtles, remove sources of bacteria and pathogens that, if otherwise left to remain, would result in “swimmers itch” for those taking a plunge, intestinal problems for those relying on lake water for drinking supplies, or other difficulties for both Lakeland residents and resident wildlife.

Juvenile Blanding's Turtle and Turtle Guardian Volunteer (Photo: Turtle Guardians)

Fun fact: in Europe, snapping turtles have been used to find bog people- people who have haplessly fallen through the layers of sphagnum moss atop boggy wetlands, and sunk into the dark acidic depths to have met their demise, only to then be “pickled” in the process.  To search out these calamities, a gentle lead is fastened to a snapping turtle who then sniffs out the bodies, directing divers to the source of interest.

When turtles age, they require less protein and will forage mainly on vegetation and seeds. And then, as they journey between habitats within their territory from mating areas, to feeding areas, to nest sites, and eventually to hibernation sites, the turtles spread these seeds (that are now ready to germinate thanks to processes during digestion) and the seeds grow to renew wetlands and shorelands, which in turn are essential habitats supporting about 70% of Ontario’s fish and wildlife; from fish nurseries to forage areas for frogs, waterfowl and even moose. The cycle is then begun again as the plants that take root in these places thanks to the turtles, then also help to filter water for everyone’s benefit, and foster fish and wildlife, including turtles. Turtles are therefore custodians of this cycle.  Therefore, without turtles, or sufficient numbers of turtles in an area, entire food webs and ecosystems will deteriorate towards major malfunction. Turtles are also found in almost all places on the earth, except the south pole. And turtles, globally, are at risk of extinction.

What is more marvelous, beyond the services that turtles provide, is the mysterious maneuvering that turtles do. They know where they were born and they know where they are going: Turtles make a mental map of their territories when they are very young, beginning with their nest sites, they index spaces as they roam and explore. Between hatch-out to approximately 3 years of age turtles are imprinting feeding grounds, travel routes, mating sites, and hibernation locations, effectively mapping out an entire territory. This territory can be as big as 20km square for larger species and as small as 2km square for smaller turtles. And once imprinted, these places are etched in their memory, which is incredible, as they will return to hibernation sites within 1 metre of the previous year and cross roads taking the same pathways to nest sites or feeding areas, rarely veering more than 15km off course (Brookes).

This memorized atlas will last them the rest of their lives, which can be upwards of 200 years for Snapping turtles and over 400 years for smaller turtle species. However, the ability to make a map seems to deteriorate with age, and moving a turtle from its territory can be devastating because the stress of disorientation along with the ceaseless attempts to find a way home may lead them to stop eating, but also may send them across new and dangerous roads.

Atlas the Snapping Turtle
(Photo: Turtle Guardians)

Beyond an ingenious mind map, turtles also have incredible ways to navigate from one site to another within their territories. Studies have shown that turtles will use the sun as a clock to find east and west, while magnetite, a mineral that is found in sea turtles’ brains, and which may also be found in Ontario’s turtles effectively makes a turtle into a walking compass as it allows them to find magnetic north. Other studies show that turtles may have a unique chemical in their eyes and a unique sensor in their ears where they can see or sense earth magnetics and therefore discern north from south etc. Amazing!

If that is not astounding enough, these facts may inspire you: They can hold their breath for 45 minutes and in the winter, they can breathe through their nodes in their butts as they bruminate (awake and slowly moving under the ice). Their hearts also beat only a few times a minute when in this state. Many species can rotate their eyeballs to see front and side and have exceptional sight. They can regrow nerve tissue which helps them heal from major trauma. They cry when injured. They call to each other in their nests to tell each other when to emerge. Turtle’s hearts will beat for approximately four days after they are brain dead. And according to Indigenous teachings they are a testament to the Creator’s love for humanity by transmitting the sacred Seven Grandfather teachings to us and as walking evidence of creation; where the snapping turtle was alive in the exact form as it is in today, during the Cretaceous period 50M years ago; also their physiology is illuminating, where each hard shell turtle species in north America has 13 main scutes on their top shell for each of the 13 moons in the year and 28 ridges between the terminal scutes which reflect the 28 days between each moon.


Historically, turtles were entirely miscalculated. Early settlers likened them to rodents assuming them to be in numerous and expendable. These colonists further thought that turtles competed with fish species or killed too many waterfowl, and therefore the snapping turtle was culled through government order. But we finally know better- after significant research and integrating Indigenous Traditional Knowledge, it is understood that turtles are truly exceptional.

It takes approximately 60 years to replace just one turtle in nature. This is because turtles take about the same time as humans or longer to reach sexual maturity (between the age of 8 up to 20), and then they have a very low recruitment rate (the percentage of eggs that hatch and succeed to reach adulthood) which is about 0.06%.

Older turtles are more fecund; meaning they lay more eggs as they age and they have fewer natural predators. Therefore, these adults are essential to keep populations stable.

However, adult turtles are facing increasing threats by humans, and populations are declining rapidly. The decline is chiefly due to road strikes. Secondary threats include wetland and shoreland habitat losses through filling and degradation, as well as losses to the pet trade and deliberate persecution. Therefore, the most recent assessments indicate that we have lost more than 50% of turtles in Ontario, and in very short order- in less than 50 years. But the decline in populations is not steady- it increases as more adults are lost, and as more roads are improved and installed, and as traffic surges, so that the rate of reduction is escalating.


Grace and Turtle Crossing Guard Volunteer
 (Photo: Turtle Guardians)

What can be done?

The Turtle Guardians program of The Land Between charity, is an initiative that was founded locally and which operates across Ontario. The effort, dedicated to saving our shelled friends, is grassroots, and works with local volunteers, communities, and kids to save turtles. Turtle Guardians offers training and tools for all skill levels and all ages. You can sign up as Nest Sitter and learn how to construct a nest cage protector, install, and monitor nests and babysit nesting turtles. Road Researchers are volunteers that walk, cycle or drive target roads at least once a week and record turtle activity as well as help turtles that they encounter. Wetland Watchers monitor wetland sites recording turtle and wildlife sightings and habitat features. The newest program, Turtle Crossing Guards, involves taking shifts in mortality zones to record turtles encountered and help them to the other side safely.  Training is provided and includes lessons in how to handle and help snapping turtles (and other turtles), road safety protocols, and how to record data. All data helps the charity and their extensive partners, estimate turtle populations, plan for underpasses and other mitigation measures, and communicate trends and needs with partners and agencies. And of course, the helping hands on the landscape are a direct help to these vulnerable heroes. Turtle Guardians operates under a Species at Risk research permit and in partnership with the Haliburton Road Department, Scales Nature Park, and the Trillium Lakelands District School Board. 

Grace on Vest (Photo: Turtle Guardians)

The inspiration for the newest program came from Grace. Grace is an ancient snapping turtle; whose hibernation site is near the Haliburton Highlands Secondary School and feeding grounds extend across 2 lakes at over 40km radius and across busy roads including Highway 118 in Haliburton County.  Grace is likely over 125 years old judging by her carapace (upper shell) size, and could be as old as 200 years according to scientific studies (Armstrong and Brooks). She is the largest turtle the Turtle Guardians, have had the honour of meeting in Haliburton county. She is 39cm, which is very close to the record size found in this area of Ontario that we know of at 42cm.  Grace is not only notable because of her size, but she is missing her right eye. Grace is named for the absolute miracle of her longevity and existence without significant injury or death in this busy area of roads and boats.  But Grace is not the only elder to watch out for. Therefore, when travelling on the local roads, drive defensively with relaxed eyes focused ahead. Turtles often cross between two low lying areas, where they feel safe.

Help Turtle Guardians by volunteering and also by donating. The program is raising funds for the Crossing Guard program, to pay for high visibility vests, signage to bookend key sites and keep drivers, volunteers, and turtles safe, and for temporary silt fencing to assist in “slowing turtles”. Also, Guardians are also working to install two pilot underpasses to help turtles cross under roads using existing culverts in candidate areas.  They have launched a GoFundMe Campaign to support these efforts. Please consider supporting their by volunteering: and by donating: or through go fund me at

Turtle Guardian Volunteer and Midland Painted Turtle
(Photo: Turtle Guardians)