The critically sensitive ecosystem we are all a part of has a myriad of interdependent features; if even one is affected, the entire system has the potential to collapse. Scientists have warned of what happens when a species goes extinct – human factors being the most prominent cause in recent times – and what it means for life as we know it. Thanks to rescue operations, many species have been rehabilitated, which helps maintain their populations, but due to constant threats, such as habitat loss due to urban development, many species, whether threatened or not, are still rapidly declining.
From worms that travel underground, to worms that significantly improve soil health, to rabbits that survive on vegetation within green spaces that would otherwise grow and make the environment less livable, foxes have a role to play in the ecosystem, feeding on animals left unchecked. all greens, turtles and raccoons “clean up” after everyone around them.
Then there are the people.
With us comes a lot of destruction. As our population grows at an unsustainable rate, we destroy more and more vital ecosystems.
The biggest threat facing all animals is habitat loss, and some of the major contributing factors are related to development and climate change. Today, less than 30 percent of Ontario’s original wetlands remain. Hot roads and sidewalks, wide subdivisions, huge warehouses, to name just a few features of our built form, encroach on and fragment wild spaces, resulting in appalling animal loss.
In 2016, after hundreds of hours and several phases over the years, Brampton’s first wildlife culvert was installed along with an eco-fence in a provincially significant wetland to direct animals across. Its use and benefits were later studied with trail cameras, and two more culverts have since been added.
Despite these important efforts, 21 turtles of breeding age have been hit by vehicles on Heart Lake Road between Sandalwood Parkway and Countryside Drive so far this year.
Only one survived.
Eco fencing and the Wildlife Channel along Heart Lake Road north of Sandalwood. Fencing will last for a long time, but not permanently. Every year in winter, not only the snow, but also the gravel underneath is damaged by plowing. A current solution is to fill in displaced gravel that leaves debris in the fence in the spring.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
That’s why the Heart Lake Turtle Troopers (HLTT) were formed. Two years ago, concerned residents — Christina Cicconetti and Lori Leckie — met by chance while hiking at Loafer Lake in Brampton. Both starting out with little knowledge, but still wanting to get involved, they decided to create a Facebook group to see if others would be interested in turtle conservation, and co-founded Jamie-Lee Ball, Maureen Mueller, Rebecca Zimmerman Bambrough, along with Leah Nakkers and Ruth Takayesu, HLTT- currently has about 1000 active members.
“Hundreds of turtles died every year for this to happen, so many that it drove the population down a lot. Fewer turtles have been killed recently, partly because of the fence and partly because of the rapid population decline,” Cicconetti says. “The reality is that we have to release more than a thousand hatchlings to replace one breeding-aged turtle.”
Painted turtle hatchlings in the temporary transport container were marked with their clutch (egg group or hatchlings) for records; hatching surfaces for some air before a released turtle returns home to explore further; HLTT Group.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer) Cicconetti photo (right) courtesy of HLTT.
Freshwater turtles are living and breathing filters of wetlands. Eating a wide variety of foods, these opportunistic eaters are scavengers of the waters. Without the biodiversity of different species of turtles, swamps become overrun with mosquitoes, dead fish and invasive plants, making them completely uninhabitable. The lack of fresh water creates a chain reaction of destructive events capable of collapsing the surrounding ecosystem.
Painted turtles can live an average of 30 years in the wild if populations are healthy. However, as of 2018, these turtles have been designated as a species of Special Concern – meaning they are at risk of extinction along with seven other turtle species in Ontario. Slow puberty – 5 and 12 years for males and females on average – and spawning small tubers can kill even one breeding turtle and decimate an entire population.
“On Countryside Drive, a car made a left turn onto Heartlake Road, either going too fast or cutting someone off and going off the road and onto a beach that went into a turtle nest. The turtle nesting beach is still littered with the car parts we found. Fortunately, there were no nesting turtles at that time. We see more people rushing or just being careless,” says Cicconetti.
“Eco fencing is a huge win and we’re very lucky to have it because there are a lot of cities that don’t have it at all. The city protects it, keeping the brush cut one meter in so that the animals have access to the passage on both sides. It’s not great that they’re doing that because I’ve seen them with their trimmers during nesting season, so there can be improvements there, but I think that’s where our group comes in – hopefully we can work with everyone and continue to educate on the best way. keep turtles out of fences and nest boxes.”
Painted turtles are on average the size of a loon at birth. Adults will grow to maturity and can be up to 25cm in length. Snappers, on the other hand, are much larger. Starting out wider than a golf ball, adults can reach 50 cm in length, although this is becoming increasingly rare due to their low reproductive rate and ever-increasing mortality rate.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
Turtles take even longer to hatch, sometimes reaching 15-20 years before reaching maturity. All species prefer the gravel-sand substrate that comprises road shoulders and is a major contributor to such high risk, especially for turtles of breeding age, but all are threatened by habitat disruption from processes such as fragmentation. for example, the construction of major highway corridors disrupts important ecosystems.
Since the development of Brampton Highway 410, which has had severe consequences on the provincially significant wetland where Heartlake Conservation Area is located, the local turtle population has suffered greatly due to increased traffic.
Mainly through millions of years of evolution, even small babies have natural instincts to travel towards water and immediately seek shelter.
“Our grandmother Kaya, the turtle here, was shot in June. He’s broken through environmental fences — he’s a giant, he’s a dinosaur,” Cicconetti says. “He is at least 80 years old. I don’t know if she ran right over him or what, but I think she was trying to cross over to the east side of the road to lay some eggs in the sun and someone ran over her. and hit him. The side of his face and a part of his skin were damaged.”
“Fortunately, one of our Soldiers passed the car at the right time and saw him bleeding on the side of the road, called me and told me to come quickly. Then five minutes later she calls me and says she’s laying eggs. It was hit by a car, laid 50 eggs on the ground, covered them perfectly, and began to return to the swamp. So we caught him. He was so big that we had to buy a special litter box to put him in. Went to OTCC. They said he jumped out of the dumpster and started “running” down the sidewalk. But her babies hatched and they were released today.”
Releasing multiple broods requires patience and knowledge of wetland ecosystems. All turtles should spread out along the shore to reduce the chances of being eaten by predators. Naturally, freshwater hatchlings tend to emerge from their shells one at a time, which gives them a better chance of hiding, so when controlled releases occur, Turtle Troops try to mimic this natural defense.
Another type of development that can threaten mature turtles is park expansion. As of June 2022, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNR) has approved permits for HLTT to excavate a nest from a resident baseball diamond. A win-win situation that allows children to play safely outside while also providing an ideal environment for the eggs to incubate away from predators.
Because of these permits, along with the Save the Turtles at Risk Today (START) program and a partnership with Scales Nature Park, since August 14, more than 80 baby turtles have been released into their original habitats – with more nesting boxes throughout the area is nearing the end of the process. The time difference between indoor and outdoor nest incubation is different weather elements. Indoors, temperature and humidity can be controlled, but not outdoors.
Lori Leckie (kneeling) leads a childhood education talk with a group about the roles of turtles in the ecosystem.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
Maureen Mueller (far right) releases her cubs into a wetland.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
In addition to the important conservation efforts undertaken by HLTT, the space provides educational opportunities for anyone interested in learning more about the wildlife they share.
“I’m blown away,” Brampton North MPP Graham McGregor said at the release of the cubs. He noted the great achievements of the citizen-led institution in the last two years.
“Of course, I’ve heard a lot of concern. This was an amazing project that happened years ago and has significantly reduced the death rate. From what I’ve heard from the public and what I’ve talked to the Turtle Troops about, it’s still not enough. We have other things to do. I’m not a biologist saying ‘we should put this fence here or this fence there’, but what can I do and what should politicians do? [is] listening to experts who actually know what they’re talking about. “Whatever the solution is, we need to work with the Conservation Authority, the Province, the District, the City, to make sure we’re doing everything we can to protect biodiversity.”
Snapping turtles, like other freshwater species, need dense aquatic vegetation to survive. Not only is it a staple in their diet, but they also need a variety of plants to use as camouflage from predators to which they are vulnerable for years. Road salt contamination is one of the many serious threats they face.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
“Some people think that we are interfering with nature. My answer is always: yes, we interfere with nature. These nesting boxes interfere with nature, but nature is no longer in the equation. There is human activity [already] it changed the course of the species,” says Leckie.
While wildlife rescues arguably interfere with nature, they are simply responding to an already massive intervention that has gone unchecked for too long and has put many species in dire straits.
It is critical to take preventative measures to protect species before they are designated as “Special Concern” or worse, moving forward in an unpredictable climate like ours.
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