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Endangered Species: The spotted turtle

Creative commons photos courtesy of Kerry Wixted

Creative commons photos courtesy of Kerry Wixted

Cheryl Santa Maria
Digital Reporter

Wednesday, October 23, 2013, 3:31 PM -

Spotted turtles are small, reaching a maximum size of 14.3 cm in length. In the right conditions, they can live up to 90 years.

Best recognized by a hard black shell adorned with yellow or orange dots, males have a tan chin and brown eyes. Females tend to be slightly larger, with yellow chins, orange eyes and a shorter tail.

The spotted turtle can be found in small, isolated communities across southern Ontario. State-side, they have been seen along the eastern seaboard between Maine and Florida, and in marshy pockets around Lake Eerie.

This species is happiest in shallow wetlands -- which is, unfortunately, a prime location for development. The bogs and marshes that this species calls home is commonly drained to create roads, residential properties and farmland, fragmenting populations.

Because of this, most current spotted turtle populations contain less than 200 individuals, and are not considered self-sustaining.

The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) officially added the spotted turtle to its endangered species list in May, 2004, following years of steady decline.

Creative commons photos courtesy of Kerry Wixted

Creative commons photos courtesy of Kerry Wixted

"This species occurs at low density, has an unusually low reproductive potential, combined with a long-lived life history, and occurs in small numbers in bogs and marshes that are fragmented and disappearing," reads a statement on the COSEWIC website. "Although some populations are in protected areas, they may have a low probability of persistence, especially because small numbers and isolation reduce population viability. The low frequency of juveniles in most studied populations suggests these populations are composed largely of remnant, aged cohorts with low reproductive success. Another clear threat is from collection for the pet trade. There is no rescue effect."

Experts estimate there are about 2000 spotted turtles in Canada, but that number is declining.

The location of protected habitats are not made public in an effort to deter poaching for the pet trade, an illegal activity that can result in stiff fines and significant jail time.

Despite strict government sanctions, pet-trade poaching continues to be a growing concern with devastating ecological impacts.

"The illegal harvest of turtles from the wild is not a new phenomenon, but it has undergone significant growth recently due to the huge popularity in Canada and North America of keeping reptiles as pets," Mike Rutter, an intelligence investigative specialist with the Ministry of Natural Resources, told the Haliburton Echo in 2011.

"Due to the long life and slow reproduction of wild turtles, organized poachers can decimate a local population of turtles very quickly," he told the Echo. "In the case of any of Ontario's endangered turtles ...one poaching event has the potential to virtually eliminate an area's entire population."

What you can do to help

  • Help turtles cross the road. Countless slow-moving turtles die each year on roadways trying to get to nesting sites.
  • If you see a turtle on a busy roadway, move it to the other side, provided it is safe to do so.
  • If you spot turtles in their natural habitat, do not disturb them.
  • Preserve plant, insect, reptile and amphibian species by maintaining wetlands on your property.
  • When choosing a pet, refuse to buy endangered turtle species, or turtles that have been poached from the wild.

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