Turtle doctor helps Blanding’s preemies

By: Corina Brdar, Southeast  Zone Ecologist, Ontario Parks

There is some cutting edge research on preemie health and survival taking place in Ontario Parks.  The “preemie” babies in question are Blanding’s turtles –a species at risk in Ontario.  Each year the Kawartha Turtle Trauma Centre (KTTC) in Peterborough takes in injured (or sadly, dead) female Blanding’s turtles and rescues their eggs.  Injured turtles treated at this unique animal hospital are “induced” to release their eggs using oxytocin, just like an expectant mom would be.  The eggs are hatched at the centre and raised until they are 2 years old.

Left: Hatchling room at KTTC Right:Lynda Ruegg, a conservation technician with the KTTC, collects data on a headstarted Blanding’s turtle that she’s following in a provincial park.

Headstarting Blanding’s turtles for release in an Ontario Park

This process is known as headstarting, and it’s been used with varying success for many turtle species all over the world.  The idea is that once a turtle gets past its first few years, it has a much better chance of living long enough to make babies of its own.  In Blanding’s turtles, that’s not until they’re 20 years old!  Headstarting seems to work for some species, but not others.

And nobody knows if headstarting works for Blanding’s turtles – one of Ontario’s 7 species at risk turtles – so the KTTC is making use of eggs that otherwise never have a chance to hatch to find out.  The headstarted turtles are fitted with radio-transmitters and released into a remote area in a provincial park in eastern Ontario near where the mother turtles were picked up.  The baby turtles are followed all summer to see where they spend their time, and where they choose to hibernate.

The hardest part of headstarting turtles, Dr. Sue Carstairs, the lead veterinarian at the KTTC says, is taking care of them properly “to ensure they are as strong as possible when released.”  That’s one reason why you shouldn’t try this at home if you happen to find a turtle nest.  Another reason is that it’s not legal to keep wildlife in captivity in Ontario without a special permit.  Dr. Sue explains: “Also, there are so many ways that things can go wrong – we often have turtles surrendered to us, from people who didn’t know they weren’t supposed to  have them, or who thought they were doing them a favour by keeping them.  They are usually in very poor condition, as it takes a lot of experience to rear them properly – they need a very specialized set up with UV B light, proper heat and proper feeding.”

Project results

Dr. Sue is very happy with the past 3 years of the project.  “We haven’t seen any predation in 2 seasons – they are hiding well!” she says.  The headstarted turtles are behaving the same as the wild ones they are following, “including hibernating in the same place.”  This is an especially interesting discovery since before now nobody knew if they would be able to live through the winter.

Left: A room housing turtles being treated at KTTC Right: Lynda Ruegg, a conservation technician with the KTTC, tracks a headstarted Blanding’s turtle over surprisingly rugged terrain in a provincial park in eastern Ontario.

Kawartha Turtle Trauma Centre

The KTTC is dedicated to rehabilitating injured turtles so that they can be returned to their home to continue breeding and to live out the rest of their lives.

Dr. Sue Carstairs, and the other staff and volunteers at the KTTC, are a dedicated and energetic team.  As Dr. Sue explains: “My goal as a vet has always been to be involved in wildlife conservation projects.  I do still work with all wildlife, but the turtle project is a passion of mine, as it combines medicine and conservation so perfectly.  Every adult we save is so important to the population, as not many turtles make it to adulthood, and turtle populations rely on almost zero adult mortality to be sustainable.”  The best part of her job is releasing the rehabilitated and headstarted turtles that the KTTC treats.

We asked Dr. Sue what she wanted people to know about the KTTC, and her words were inspiring: “Everyone can help!  Everyone can have a significant role in conservation.  One person CAN make a difference.  We rely on private donations to continue to do the work that we do, so please consider becoming a KTTC member, donating monthly, or planning a bequest.

Come to the KTTC fundraiser at the Royal Ontario Museum – April 9th

Meet the KTTC team and learn more about their projects. There will be food, drinks, and a silent auction at the fundraiser, including a chance to win an Ontario Parks season’s pass.  They are a very cost-efficient organization, and run primarily with volunteers, and with some very dynamic employees.

All donations go directly to our projects. For tickets see www.turtles.eventbrite.ca