Tread carefully: snappers nesting. STUDENTS MAKING A DIFFERENCE!

Students trying to protect turtles’ habitat behind college campus


Pity the baby turtle.

A fox, opossum or raccoon will often dig up your sandy nest of eggs before it’s even time to hatch.

Or they’re waiting with open jaws as you struggle up through the dirt to freedom. Maybe too much heat — or too little — prevents you from hatching at all.

And if you’re lucky enough to be that one-in-1,000 turtle who manages to live into adulthood?

“Then you’re probably roadkill,” said Martin Smith, the co-ordinator of the environmental technician program at Niagara College.

“The mortality rate for turtles is pretty appalling.”

Luckily for local reptiles, a group of Niagara College students advised by Smith is trying to improve the odds, in particular for snapping turtles.

The Niagara Environmental Corps (NEC) is in the second year of an experiment to create and protect turtle nesting habitat in the lagoons behind the college on Glendale Avenue.

They won’t turn any turtles away, of course, but their focus is the declining population of snapping turtles.

“The goal is to look after them before they become truly threatened,” Smith said.

Last year’s fledgling effort helped 57 hatchlings from a single nest safely find the water — and attracted attention from reptile experts at the Toronto Zoo.

Student observations in Niagara are now being put to good use in a big turtle habitat project in the Rouge River Valley, said Toronto Zoo reptiles curator Bob Johnson, who has visited the local turtle experiment.

I really like it. They’re testing designs, collecting data, making recommendations … all these things are needed and helpful,” he said.

“Students tend to work with a lot of theory. This is putting theory into practice…. The fact that they had hatchlings in their first year speaks to the success of that theory.”

The group has partnered with Lafarge Canada to spread prime turtle nesting habitat — about 60 tonnes of sand and gravel — in several spots around the lagoon.

The next step is to cross your fingers and wait for turtles.

The stakeout began in June this year, with NEC co-ordinator Shannon Fletcher and students Brent Abernethy, Sean Jones, William Barnes and Tracy Boese watching for mamma turtles scouting nesting ground.

They managed to find two buried nests before the predators did and surrounded each with a deep metal cage and temperature probes.

They discovered four other nests too late. “They were dinner, unfortunately,” Smith said.

In late August, the students will camp out in shifts in the lagoon.

They want someone on scene when the turtles break out of their leathery shells and claw towards the surface, 25 slow centimetres away.

In the meantime, Tracy Boese has created signs to keep unknowing visitors from disturbing the nests.

“Quiet, babies sleeping” reads the one above one nest buried just a few metres from the water’s edge.

Boese is constantly checking the temperature of the nest and recording the results.

“The temperature helps predict the sex of the turtles, so I’m excited to see how it turns out,” she said.

Barnes is keen to see the breakout moment — even if it’s in the middle of the night in a swamp.

“I’m really interested in reptiles and I love the outdoors. It beats spending all day in a lab,” he said.

Smith said the project is earning surprising attention from experts, students and random visitors.

“Animals are just sexy,” he said. “I could talk to you about cattails for hours, but it wouldn’t elicit the same interest.”

He uses that interest as an opportunity to pass on a warning: “If you’re driving in May or June and see a lump on the road, try not to hit it. It’s probably a turtle.”

I give these guys TEN THUMBS UP! A problem was discovered and someone said, “Hey let’s try and do something to make a difference!” It seems they truly are making a difference! KUDOS!

~ by Digory Kirke on August 3, 2008.

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