Road to conservation

Guest Blogger: Sean Boyle 

Growing up, I spent quite a bit of my time wandering through the woods, and exploring – looking at flowers, flipping logs, catching insects and watching them in a clear bucket – the type of thing many children do.  As I worked my way through university, I realized that there was more to nature than being a naturalist and as I begun to be exposed to wildlife biology I realized that this was the path I wanted to follow. When I headed off to graduate school, and was offered the opportunity to take the lead on a project involving reptile and amphibian conservation in Presqu’ile Provincial Park, in addition to my mammal work, I was thrilled.  For someone as interested in conserving the biodiversity that I grew up loving, reptiles and amphibians couldn’t have been a better fit – they are after all, two of the most imperiled groups of animals on the entire planet!  Reptiles and amphibians are two of the most diverse classes of animals in the world. Sadly however, they are also experiencing among the fastest extinction rates on the planet.

Blanding's Turtle Photo Credit: Sean Boyle

In the fall of 2014, Presqu’ile Provincial Park will be repaving its main road.  This presents an important opportunity for the park as well as the animals that inhabit it.  At the same time that the road is going to be repaved, structures will be added to mitigate the effects of road mortality and habitat fragmentation.  Road mortality is the most obvious effect of roads on wildlife.  All of us have seen some roadkill before, whether it was a turtle, deer or squirrel.  Reptiles and amphibians are especially affected by this threat due to their life history.  They are small, slow moving animals, which often move at night.  Reptiles have long life spans and don’t begin reproducing for several years – often decades in the case of turtles.  This means that they cross roads many times before they are able to contribute to the population.  Habitat fragmentation is slightly more difficult to measure, but in essence it is the splitting up of habitat into smaller chunks – this can restrict access to food, mates, nesting sites, and hibernation sites.

Photo Credit: David Lesbarreres

As I set off to the Park, I had two main goals in mind.  The first goal of course was that I wanted to make sure I collected as much information as possible, using the best methods available to maximize how effective mitigation was going to be.  I specifically was interested in this as my field of study, termed “road ecology” (the study of the interaction between living organisms and the various effects a road can have on those organisms – a physical barrier, chemical or auditory repellant or a source of road mortality to name a few), is relatively new and as such, is open to many discoveries that can greatly change how we protect wildlife.  The second goal I had was to involve as many people as I possibly could, especially kids.  There are a variety of techniques we employ to reduce these effects already, such as fencing to keep animals off the road, and tunnels to allow them to cross safely, but these cannot be implemented everywhere. Education is essential to the successful protection of natural systems.

Since 2013, from May – August, I have been doing daily road surveys for reptiles and amphibians on the road, to help the park identify where mitigation structures should go.  After encountering approximately 7000 animals on the road over the past two summers, I have identified various “hotspots” or areas where more animals are present than one would expect at random.  I will continue to use these data to evaluate how effective the mitigation structures are over the next two years.  It’s important we try to protect these animals. Seven out of eight turtle species in Ontario are listed as “Species At Risk”, as well as several snakes and amphibians.  It is entirely possible that some of these animals may be extirpated from Ontario within our lifetime.

Photo Credit: Jennifer Hilton

It’s very easy for anyone to get involved.  The simplest thing you can do is to help a turtle, snake, or frog across the road.  Most animals will move away from you right away but sometimes, especially with turtles you may need to pick them up.  To do this safely, pick them up by the back of the shell and take them across the road in the direction that they were headed.  For Snapping Turtles, it may be necessary for you to use a shovel, or tarp to drag them across the road if you aren’t comfortable picking them up – just make sure you don’t pick them up by their tail as it can seriously injure them. Programs such as the Ontario Turtle Tally and Frog Watch help scientists and managers identify areas which may require additional attention.  It is an easy way to participate in conservation and something fun to do with kids as well!