Three turtles sped through the water, their tiny legs kicking rapidly as they left the styrofoam carrying case behind and tasted freedom for the first time.
The year-old northern map turtles started life in a nest their mother had inadvertently left on a busy roadway inside Brant Conservation Area. Rather than see the nest trampled and some 30 eggs destroyed, Brantford resident Gary Prince carefully picked it up.
With help from wildlife biologist Debbie Squires, Prince hatched the eggs in an incubator and brought most of the hatchlings back to their Grand River nesting site. But the three baby turtles who spent the year in a local Grade 8 classroom before students returned them to their natural habitat last month also served an educational purpose.
“I’ve found that any live animals (in the classroom) are always a big draw,” said Prince, a retired elementary school science teacher. “They’re a focus point for the students.”
Six years ago, Prince created the Grand Erie Turtle Outreach Program to prop up Ontario’s at-risk turtle population and teach students about environmental stewardship.
Prince’s grandchildren got involved and turtles soon found their way into classrooms and science curriculums at Banbury Heights, Brier Park and Prince Charles schools.
Students spend the year observing, feeding and measuring the baby turtles as they grow into yearlings, at which point they join their brethren back at the park.
“I always see a very intense interest in these animals,” Prince said. “(Students) study their habits, the way they will bask if you give them a basking light, what they eat.
“All animals are interesting, but with turtles I saw that there was a bit of a plight and a loss of habitat and there was a decline in turtle populations in Ontario.”
Seven of Ontario’s nine native turtle species are listed as endangered, threatened or “of special concern” by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada.
“(The program) is important because the species we’re working with are native to Ontario,” Squires said. “(Students) are learning about the ecology of the species and how they fit into the ecosystem right at home, in our own backyards.”
Prince Charles graduate Tyler Prince, who has helped her grandfather with the project for the past five years, said caring for the turtles is a snap. The trick is moving the nests without tilting the eggs, which can prevent them from hatching, she explained.
“It’s actually quite easy once you grasp it,” Tyler said before releasing one of the map turtles at Brant Conservation Area. “It’s nice to know that we’re saving their lives and helping repopulate.”
Tayte Pasek said his Grade 8 classmates at Banbury Heights loved their reptilian guests.
“They all wanted to feed the turtles,” he said. “Every morning, they’d crowd around (the tank) to see what’s new.”
A permit from the Ministry of Natural Resources allows Prince and Squires to collect nests within Brant Conservation Area that are precariously positioned on roadways and construction zones, or buried in fire pits under mounds of ash. Prince also looks for nests targeted by natural predators like raccoons and skunks, which feed on the eggs and threaten an already weakened native turtle population. He either moves the nests to a safer location or brings them home to incubate the eggs.
If one or two hatchlings avoid predators and make it through the winter, that’s more than would have lived had the nest been raided by a raccoon or roasted in a fire pit, Squires said, noting that the yearlings have a better chance of survival after gaining strength in the classroom.
Each year, the outreach program is allowed to keep 45 hatchlings for educational use. The remaining turtles are immediately released.
The program is not permitted to collect eggs from endangered turtles. Rather, it is a proactive way to keep snapping, midland painted and northern map turtles – so named because the patterns on their shells looks like maps – off the endangered list.
“The numbers we’re permitted to collect and incubate over winter are obviously a very small proportion in the grand scheme of things,” Squires said. “Having said that, every bit helps as far as the turtles are concerned and this obviously gives them a little edge.”
Prince had released several hundred hatchlings and yearlings before Squires, his daughter-in-law, came on board in 2009. Since then, the program has overwintered 123 yearlings. Nearly every egg they collect hatches and almost every hatchling survives its year in the classroom before returning to the wild, Squires said.
Prince and Squires hope empowering youth to care for turtles will also make their parents more likely to keep the hard-shelled reptiles from ending up as roadkill, which along with predation and habitat loss is a major cause of their decline.
It is illegal to remove native species from Ontario’s parks and waterways without a permit, but the public can help conserve the turtle population by calling or e-mailing the Toronto Zoo Turtle Tally to report sightings. Many participants in the program go on to become avid turtle spotters, Prince said.
“The most interesting thing about turtles is watching them grow up (and) the way they adapt to their homes,” said Ethan Fairchild, a Grade 6 student at Banbury Heights. “It’s cool watching them get old.”
Turtles have roamed the Earth for more than 200 million years and, thanks to the Grand Erie Turtle Outreach Project, they will continue to make their home in the waterways of Brant for many years to come.