Holly Jasmine Long, Brittany Quesnel, and David Seburn collect data on a turtle found during 1 of 57 road surveys across eastern Ontario this summer. Photo by Brandon Holden.

by David Seburn

[Note: This is the third in a series of blog posts on a project of the OFNC and the Canadian Wildlife Federation. See also: Hunting for the elusive Blanding’s Turtle and Build it and they will hatch.]

Turtles as a group have been around for over 200 million years. They survived the extinction of the dinosaurs. Now they face an even greater threat: cars.

Turtles cross roads for many reasons – to find a nesting spot, to feed, breed, or hibernate in another wetland, or as part of natural dispersal. Photo by David Seburn.

Most of the species of turtles that occur in eastern Ontario live in wetlands, like marshes and swamps. If the turtles remained in those areas they would be relatively safe, but they frequently leave wetlands. Some turtles make use of numerous wetlands over the year for feeding, breeding, and hibernation. Adult females leave their aquatic homes to find places to lay their eggs. Juveniles disperse to find new wetlands. In all these cases, turtles frequently must cross roads to get where they are going – and many are killed crossing those roads.

Given all that, conducting road surveys (driving slowly while actively scanning for turtles) can be an ideal way to survey these creatures. As part of a partnership between the OFNC and the Canadian Wildlife Federation, we conducted road surveys around the Ottawa area for two main reasons. First, we were looking for new locations with the Blanding’s Turtle.  As a threatened species, the Blanding’s Turtle and its habitat receive protection under the Ontario Endangered Species Act, so finding new locations can result in additional habitat protection. Second, we wanted to identify areas with significant amounts of roadkill or “hotspots.”

We conducted 57 road surveys from late May until early September, across much of eastern Ontario, driving more than 5000 km. For each turtle we found on the road. we collected the following data when possible: species, sex, size, and location (using a hand-held global positioning system, or GPS). As expected. we found many turtles on the road: 584 in total, of which over 90% were dead. Our final count was 548 dead turtles, which is a staggering amount of road kill. Our total is also likely an underestimate, as scavengers such as raccoons can remove dead turtles before they can be counted, and surveys from a moving car will inevitably miss some dead turtles.

Most of the turtles we found were Painted Turtles, Ontario’s only turtle species that is not considered at risk. However, 25% of the road kill were species at risk. In addition to Painted Turtles, the other two species commonly found were the Blanding’s Turtle and the Snapping Turtle. We also found a few Eastern Musk Turtles and Northern Map Turtles.

We found 69 Blanding’s Turtles on roads, and these observations will contribute to habitat protection for the species. Luckily, even observations of dead turtles can contribute to habitat protection.

Our data on where turtles were found on roads will help identify hotspots where mitigation devices should be installed. For example, wildlife fencing, when combined with pre-existing culverts that can act as wildlife crossing tunnels, can reduce road kill at strategic locations but still allow movement across the landscape. Wildlife fencing can also make roads safer for drivers, as hitting a turtle on a road, or swerving to miss one, can lead to traffic accidents.

Until the time that roads are safer for wildlife, we can all do our part by watching for wildlife on roads and giving them a brake.

Red dots represent the locations of turtles found on roads. Fewer surveys were conducted in the Cornwall area.