What is a Blanding's turtle?

Blanding's turtle basking in the sun on a river bank

Blanding's turtles are medium-sized freshwater turtles. Adults have dark-green, high-domed shells with yellow flecks. Their undersides are yellow with black patches. They have black scaly skin and are easily identified by their distinctive yellow throats.

Blanding's turtles have a variety of seasonal habitats. In the summer, they prefer boggy, plant-filled, stable water bodies such as shallow lakes, wetlands and slow-moving streams and rivers. In this habitat, they are able to find a steady food source and stay camouflaged from predators.

Blanding's habitat, a river running through a bog

In the winter, they prefer streams with steep banks and deep, constantly flowing water. They also overwinter in small ponds that are spring-fed. They keep their rectum in the flowing water and use it for gas exchange (breathing).

Blanding's turtles in Nova Scotia tend to eat from all levels of the food chain. They eat aquatic plants, insects, tadpoles and small fish.

Where do Blanding's turtles live?

Blanding's turtles occur in small pockets throughout their range. Their main range is south of the Great Lakes, extending from extreme southern Quebec and Ontario, south and west to central Nebraska and east to Ohio. Outside this range, small populations occur in several areas, the most isolated are in southwestern Nova Scotia.

Three distinct sub-populations of Blanding's turtles are found within a 30 kilometre span in the southwestern part of Nova Scotia . The largest sub-population makes Kejimkujik National Park and National Historic Site of Canada its home. The other two populations occur at McGowan Lake and New Elm, 15 and 25 kilometres outside the park, respectively. These three small populations are estimated to contain only 300 adults in Nova Scotia.

What's the status of Blanding's turtles in Nova Scotia?

A Blanding's turtle swimming through lily pads

The Nova Scotia population of Blanding's turtle is listed as threatened by COSEWIC, and is protected under federal law by the Species at Risk Act. Blanding's turtles are also protected under provincial legislation, by the Nova Scotia Endangered Species Act, under which they are listed as endangered.

These listings are different because the different levels of government list species under their own set of criteria based on priorities within their jurisdictions.

What's so special about Nova Scotia's Blanding's turtles?

Hatchling turtles around a nest cavity

In Nova Scotia, the Blanding's turtle is one of our "southern relics" because the population is small, isolated and at the northeastern edge of its range. This reptile, and other southern relics such as water-pennywort, northern ribbon snake and southern flying squirrel, moved north during a warm period near the end of the last ice age. As the climate changed to what it is today, only the southwestern part of the province remained warm enough for these species to survive.

Blanding's turtles in Nova Scotia are genetically distinguishable from other Blanding's turtles in North America . This means they may make a large contribution to the genetic diversity of the species, because they have some unique behaviours and look slightly different from other Blanding's turtles.

In fact, the Nova Scotia population is composed of three sub-populations (Kejimkujik, McGowan, New Elm), each genetically distinguishable from the other. The three sub-populations do not seem to mix. Behavioural differences have also been observed among these populations.

Why is the Blanding's turtle in danger?

A stream filled with lily pads

Outside Kejimkujik National Park and National Historic Site, the greatest threat to Blanding's turtles is habitat loss. Human development and industry (dams, forestry, agriculture, roads, cottage and residential development) have the potential to destroy and fragment important habitats for these turtles.

These turtles use their habitats in very special ways, which makes them extremely sensitive to change. They live in peaty, slow-flowing streams. Nesting areas must be open and/or south facing and have a gravel base. In the winter, these turtles gather in small areas. They return every year to these same nesting and overwintering sites.

Unlike some freshwater turtles, Blanding's turtles can swallow holding their head above or below water!

These sites may be used by many turtles or may be in short supply, and are small enough to be accidentally destroyed. If these areas are destroyed, it could seriously affect the Nova Scotia population.

Females who nest inland, often on roadsides, run the risk of being hit by a car. However, the hatchlings that emerge from the roadside nests are more prone to becoming roadkill casualties because drivers cannot see them.

The Raccoon - the main predator of turtles

Nests are buried in the ground and can be destroyed by vehicles, excavation, flooding and predators. Raccoons are the main predator of these turtles, eating both young turtles and their eggs. Human garbage attracts raccoons, which means their numbers increase in the park. The more raccoons, the more threat to the turtles.

A nest enclosure that has been flooded by high water

Inconsistent summer weather means fewer turtle hatchlings survive because adequate heat is needed to fully develop the young turtles. Also, natural flooding in the fall and controlled flooding for hydropower are potential dangers for the survival of beach nests.

Another concern is the small proportion of juveniles and young adults in the population. This means there are fewer numbers of turtles reaching the age when they can reproduce. Surveys show that most turtles are over 30 years of age. Although in recent years, as a result of active management and improved survey methods, hatchlings' survival rate seems to have improved.

What is Parks Canada doing to save the Blanding's turtle?

To protect Blanding's turtles, Kejimkujik National Park and National Historic Site is actively involved in recovery actions, research, public education and partnerships.

Recovery actions

Volunteers checking nest enclosures

The protection provided by Kejimkujik has been a key factor in preserving Nova Scotia's Blanding's turtle population. All Blanding's turtle habitat in the park receives the highest level of protection. In these areas of special protection, no development or recreational activities may occur. A major trail, which once went through a popular nesting beach, was removed so that females can nest undisturbed.

Throughout June, park staff, researchers and volunteers monitor all known nesting sites in Kejimkujik and at McGowan Lake and New Elm. They observe adult nesting females turtles in order to identify their nesting locations. Once the females have laid their eggs, the nests are covered with a wire-mesh enclosure to protect them from predators.

In the fall, the hatchlings emerge and must be released from the enclosure. Nests are checked daily and hatchlings are counted, measured, marked and released.

A "head-started" hatchling with a radio transmitter

Park staff and researchers have "head-started" hatchlings several times. This involved keeping hatchlings over the winter and providing them with care, food and a warm environment. Most of these hatchlings more than doubled in size in this time period. When released, they had a very high survival rate and could be tracked by radio because of their larger size.

Park visitors and local residents have been educated about the importance of this rare turtle and have been encouraged to report Blanding's turtle sightings to park staff and researchers. This is largely due to a poster campaign launched by the Blanding's Turtle Recovery Team to help locate new turtle locations.

A bog - perfect turtle habit

The community outreach efforts by the recovery team were acknowledged when Bowater Mersey Paper Company Ltd. designated McGowan Lake a Unique Area, to protect the turtle and its habitat, in spring 2003.

Research

A park warden makes notes about a turtle

Research and monitoring within Kejimkujik improve our understanding of this turtle's biology and how Parks Canada can help protect it.

Park staff and researchers monitor and record turtle numbers and movements through a "mark and recapture" system that identifies individual turtles. Radio-tracking studies have also helped clarify where these reptiles travel and what habitats they use throughout the summer as well as for nesting and overwintering.

In cooperation with Acadia University and the Centre of Geographic Studies, a number of field studies are being conducted inside and outside the park. These studies hope to find more turtles and improve our understanding of the Blanding's turtle's habitat requirements in all three sub-populations and identify any behavioural differences among them.

A researcher watches a female Blanding's turtle nest

Researchers, volunteers and park staff are examining the behaviour and survivorship of hatchlings and juveniles within each of the three sub-populations. These studies also hope to identify what habitats the younger turtles prefer. This research will indicate if these sub-populations are increasing.

Other studies will further examine the genetic diversity of these turtles in Nova Scotia and their response to environmental change. This information will be important for protecting Blanding's turtles and their habitat in the future.

Public education

A park interpreter talks about Blanding's turtles using a model

Parks Canada interpreters interest visitors by presenting guided programs in Kejimkujik about the natural history, habitat and protection of the Blanding's turtle. The programs, including guided walks, canoe trips and theatre presentations, aim to help people develop an appreciation and respect for the species.

Kejimkujik also offers a variety of information, through theatre presentations, interpretative signs, videos, Web sites and brochures, to help people learn about Blanding's turtles and species at risk in southwest Nova Scotia . Programs are also delivered to local schools to improve the students' understanding of species at risk , the concerns for their survival and how the students can help.

Park staff and recovery team members have worked with local landowners and land-use planners at community meetings and special event days to help educate the local community about the Blanding's turtle and its lifestyle.

Blanding's turtles have a semi-hinged plastron (bottom). This means they can pull their head and legs into the shell and move the plastron towards the carapace (top). This action partially closes the shell. In this regard, they are similar to box turtles, which can completely close their shell.

Working with partners

The Blanding's Turtle Recovery Team has updated the National Recovery Plan for the Blanding's Turtle (Emydoidea blandingii) Nova Scotia Population and has completed a Communication Action Plan for the turtle. These plans recommend actions to improve the conservation, recovery and management of this species. They will itemize and define protection strategies for Blanding's turtles both within and beyond the Park boundaries.

Parks Canada is a member of the recovery team, which consists of a variety of representatives, including:

  • Acadia University
  • Bowater Mersey Paper Company Limited
  • Dalhousie University
  • Nova Scotia Power Incorporated
  • Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources
  • Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History
  • private individuals

Parks Canada and the recovery team also work with a number of other partners in an effort to recover the Blanding's turtle, including:

  • Centre of Geographic Studies
  • Atlantic Canada Conservation Data Centre
  • local museums
  • private landowners
  • volunteers
  • interested public

How can I help?

A nest enclosure on the beach

If you are visiting Kejimkujik National Park and National Historic Site of Canada:

  • Please do not disturb turtle nest enclosures.
  • Respect the beaches and lakeshores that are closed off near the campground.
  • If you encounter a Blanding's turtle, do not touch or disturb it. Instead, observe the turtle from a distance and report your sighting to Parks Canada staff.
  • Do not litter. Raccoons are attracted by garbage. The more raccoons that are attracted to the park, the more turtles and turtle nests will be eaten by these predators.
  • Volunteer with Blanding's turtle research, monitoring and nest covering inside the park.
  • Participate in park interpretive programs to learn more about the Blanding's turtle and how you can help.
A female turtle walking along a beach

If you are outside Kejimkujik:

  • Please do not disturb turtle nest enclosures.
  • If you encounter a Blanding's turtle, do not touch or disturb it. However, if a turtle is on the road, it is good to move it in the direction it is heading.
  • Drive carefully during the June nesting season to avoid killing turtles trying to nest on roadsides.
  • Make your property wildlife friendly. Do not use chemical pesticides and leave lakeshores and wetlands in a natural state.