Turtles and Snakes

My favourite type of turtle is the kind with pecans and chocolate.  I could eat an entire box in one sitting!  And regret it….  But that’s not the type of turtle I’m supposed to be writing about.  I better get at the animal type.

Most people know what a turtle looks like.  Unless, of course, you watch too much TV and think they are bright green, shaped like humans with shells on their backs, and wear coloured scarves across their eyes.  In Ontario, there are 8 species of turtles and none of them come close to looking like that!  Most of these species look very much the same, with a hard, rounded upper shell (the carapace) and an underside which is flatter (the plastron).  These are both made of bone.  The carapace is actually part of the turtle’s spine which is fully attached to the rest of the bones in its body, including the plastron.  So forget the rumour that turtles can crawl out of their shells like snails or other mollusks.

Image from Chattahoochee Nature Center, a reptile rehabilitation clinic

The top layer of the carapace is made out of keratin, the same substance that develops into hair and nails in humans.  Since turtles are reptiles and all reptiles have scales, these keratin deposits on the top shell are their scales.  They grow in patterned sections called scutes.  These scute markings help to identify the species of turtle since they have different colouring, texture, and shape.  Like a snake regularly sheds its skin as it grows, a turtle sheds its scutes as it gets older.

Habitats that have lots of water, like lakes, rivers, ponds, and marshy areas, is where you would find turtles.  They are omnivores, feeding on both aquatic and land plants, worms, insects, and small mammals and fish.  Turtles, scientifically referred to as Chelonia, are cold-blooded animals, which is why we often see them basking in the sun atop logs.  The heat raises their body temperature, and dries out old scutes to be shed.

Turtles “brumate” (a reptilian term for hibernate) underwater through the winter, though very little is understood of what actually goes on during this process.  Ponds tend not to freeze completely, so groups of turtles, their metabolism greatly slowed, hide out under the ice, breathing through their butts.  Hey, what was that?  Yes, you read that right, breathing through their back ends!  These talented chelonias rely on “cloacal respiration” which is moving oxygenated water over body surfaces that have lots of blood vessels, which for turtles is in the butt area.  This allows them to get enough oxygen to survive the winter.

In the spring when the ice thaws from the tops of the ponds, it is mating time.  This is a period when turtles are especially at risk.  For one thing, they are still recovering from brumation, feeling crampy and less energetic, which leaves them more vulnerable to predators such as birds, dogs, opossums, raccoons, and snakes.  Mostly though, after breeding, the females might travel long distances to find a good nesting area, and this often requires crossing roads.  Cars are right up there with the worst of the predators.

Females bury about 4-8 eggs in damp sand or soil, near a water source, and leaves them to gestate for 2-3 months.  Temperatures determine the gender of the eggs – the hotter the weather, the more females are hatched.  Most of the eggs are eaten by predators, and those that hatch quickly move to the water, but not all make it.  It is estimated that less than 1% of eggs live to adulthood.  Mature turtles, depending on the species, can live to the ripe old age of 100, but for most, it is far less.

All of the 8 species of turtle in Ontario are considered at risk, with 3 on the “Endangered” list.  Humans account for the biggest threat due to habitat destruction, pollution, roads built through nest areas, illegal collection, and accidental boating and fishing trauma.  For people who want to protect these reptiles, petition governments to provide ecopassages (safe routes that are built under roads so animals can get to different parts of their habitat in safety) and keep your eye out for turtles crossing the road.

Each summer, Procyon is brought turtles that have been run over.  We tend to the cracked shells and other wounds, stabilize them, and decide if they need more intensive medical care.  If so, they are transferred to a rehab in Peterborough that specializes in the treatment of this animal.  You can help by becoming a volunteer driver.  Several times per month, Procyon needs volunteers to transfer sick animals – sometimes it is picking up an animal, other times dropping one off.  If you have a car and a bit of extra time, this is a good way to support in the rehabilitation of wildlife.

And now, let’s talk about snakes!  These unfortunate reptiles have received such bad press, most of it unwarranted.  From ancient times, mythology has cast snakes as evil.  More modern media has continued to vilify these animals in both books and movies.  We need to look at these reptiles with more objectivity.

I doubt I need to explain what a snake looks like.  Sure, there are differences in species like size, colour, pattern, but mostly they are long, slim, and have no arms or legs.  They are also covered in dry scales which are shed as it grows bigger.  Snakes have no voice, no outer ears, and no eyelids.

There are 17 species of snake in Ontario.  Only one type is venomous, and I had the pleasure of a first encounter with one while hiking along the rocky shore of Georgian Bay last month.  It sat perfectly still while I took a few fairly close pictures.  I guess it didn’t feel threatened by me since it didn’t rattle or coil up.  But I didn’t press my luck, just thanked it for posing for me and slowly backed up.

As with most animals, they won’t bother you if you don’t bother them.  And 16 out of the 17 species will do you no great harm even if you did bother them.  Nature has provided our planet with an assortment of species that complement each other and give us what we need to survive long-term.  And there are several reasons why we should appreciate our slithering friends.  For starters, they balance out our ecosystem, acting as both predator and prey, depending on the need.  Crop growers suffer significant damage by rodents, which they try to control through chemical deterrents.  Mice make a tasty meal for snakes – a free, natural way to solve the problem if given the opportunity.  And mice carry ticks which cause Lyme disease.  So farmers – forget the chemicals and bring on those snakes!

Nifty snake facts:

  • cold-blooded
  • brumate in the winter
  • tend to be loners
  • not aggressive
  • carnivores (eat frogs, mice, insects, mammals, lizards)
  • smell with their tongues
  • can live without food for months
  • use belly scales and muscles to slither

Habitat destruction by humans, road fatalities, and a general lack of appreciation for snakes is causing them to become endangered.  Knowledge is the best defence for these reptiles.  Ontario’s only venomous snake, the Massasauga rattler has only ever killed 2 people, the last being 60 years ago.  Here is a surprising a comparison:  In 2018, Stats Canada showed 0 deaths by snake in the entire country, 29 deaths from mosquito bites, 1 death from a family dog, and 266 deaths at the hands of other humans.  What are you afraid of?

For more on turtles you can also read Jennifer Howard’s article https://www.procyonwildlife.com/2019/08/06/the-life-of-turtles/

Turtles and Snakes
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