by Leora Berman
Have you heard of The Land Between? It is a region that spans southcentral Ontario. Some people call it Cottage Country, and others call it Turtle Country. The Land Between is a unique and important landscape in Ontario and what ecologists call an ecotone: a transition zone between ecoregions. It is found between the Canadian Shield and the St. Lawrence Lowlands and it extends from east to west from the Ottawa Valley to the Georgian Bay coastline. The Land Between as an ecotone, can be effectively described as a meeting place. Here, in The Land Between, species from bordering ecoregions both north and south congregate. Therefore, in this region you can find both the moose and the deer; the river otter and the woodchuck; the raven and crow; the osprey and the cardinal; and even the blackfly and mosquito! But the Land Between is more than a meeting place, it is also a unique region with rare features such as the majority of exposed rock barren habitats in the province, and also the most lakes, wetlands and aquatic habitats. Therefore, the region also attracts rare and unique species: For instance, birds whose populations or ranges are primarily found within the Land Between include the Red Shouldered Hawk, Golden Winged Warbler, and Common Nighthawk. Also reptiles are reliant on this landscape, including the five-lined skink where approximately 95% of Ontario’s population is found here; 25% of Ontario’s snakes that provide important pest control, and also turtles! More than 30% of turtles, Ontario’s cleaning crew, are found here! Turtles clean water and are essential to maintain clean water that in turn supports fisheries, abundant wildlife, and human health too.
With this diversity of species and natural cover at about 80%, this landscape is the last wilderness in the southern extent of the province. However, it is also the last stronghold for many of the species and corresponding ecosystem services that benefit human health and these benefits extend to north and south too.
The Land Between is also the name of a unique charity. It is a grassroots non-government organization that works to conserve Ontario’s wildlife and corresponding ecosystem services, and does this in a way that honours the original treaties of Canada and therefore uses a governance model with equal representation and participation by First Nations.
The Land Between chooses projects that can have wide ranging benefits and impacts with a focus on youth and communities. Turtle Guardians is one of these keystone projects.
The Land Between charity has gathered ten other organizations together to cooperate in helping inspire kids and people to become citizen scientists and save Ontario’s turtles. The turtle Guardians program has created curriculum for Ontario schools to reconnect kids with nature. It hosts workshops and offers summer turtle camps for kids. It provides apps and tools to help kids grow and develop leadership skills. There are five levels of guardianship and to reach the first, people have to pass a turtle identification test. If they pass, they receive their own unique ID card that indicates they are a Level 1! The next levels correspond to increasing levels of knowledge and skills from making nest protectors, to monitoring wetlands, road reconnaissance for those over 18, all the way to Level 5, where people conduct scientific research.
But why focus on turtles? What is to turtle-y cool about turtles? Turtles were here before the dinosaurs and have survived five mass extinctions. However, turtles are in trouble and their populations are declining significantly. In fact, some scientists predict, that without our help, turtles may only have another fifty years on this planet.
Meanwhile turtles live a very long time. We know that turtles are one of the longest living species and that they live over 100 years. But how long exactly? We do not know. A forty year study at Algonquin Research Station by Dr. Ron Brooks and Dr. Doug Armstrong indicates that turtles may actually live many hundreds of years. And First Nations have said that turtles live to one thousand years. This seems incredible and one may wonder, if this is the case, why turtles need our help? Well, studies reveal that it takes more than sixty years of nesting for one egg to hatch, the hatchling to survive and then to reach adulthood, all in order to replace one turtle. This translates into less than 1% of eggs making it to adulthood. Therefore, it virtually takes one human lifespan to replace one turtle. And turtles can be likened to humans in other ways too, because turtles only reach reproductive maturity at about the same time as humans; an average of 12 years old. Therefore, each adult turtle is essential to maintain the population and adults need to live at least sixty years to replace only themselves. Again, turtles are essential to our own health and wellbeing. They are the underpinnings of healthy aquatic ecosystems. Their presence in lakes and wetlands ensure that water and habitat is fresh and healthy for all. The major threat to turtles is from humans; specifically, from our automobiles. Too many turtles are being killed or injured on roads, especially nesting females.
What can you do to help? First watch for turtles on and near roads and if it is safe to do so for yourself, other cars and humans, then help the turtle off the road in the direction it is heading. Never pick a turtle up by the tale as this is part of their spine. For snapping turtles, as the only species that cannot tuck in their shells to hide, a car mat is a handy way to scoot them off the road without too much of a struggle. Secondly, report sightings of turtles to the Turtle Guardians program. You can download a Turtle Guardian app. And, become a Turtle Guardian! It is free and it is fun!
The turtle guardian program inspires and recruits people to assist in citizen science; to report sightings of turtles and the program raises funds to help turtle too. The sightings and the resources support the installation of crossing signs in key areas, and of turtle tunnels (underpasses or fencing to direct turtles under roads and through culverts) in feasible sites. Also the Turtle Guardians program and the guardians too, help conserve and manage habitats as well as assist road crews and municipalities in designing and outlining specific management and mitigation actions. Guardians can also help directly by learning how to make nest protectors; cages that cover nests so that eggs have a better chance to survive, and installing these on their own properties. The fun part is that you can watch the hatchlings emerge from the nest and help them into the wild. The guardian program also supports trauma care for turtles; medical treatment to rehabilitation injured turtles. Finally, the program holds annual turtle walks across Ontario; fun for kids and families and a great way to inspire and build confidence in kids while raising raise awareness.