Are turtles truly as slow as we thought?

Painted turtles (like this one) are the most common turtle on Manitoulin Island and were the focus of a presentation made by guest speaker Steven Kell at a talk he made at the Manitoulin Nature Club meeting last Friday evening.

MANITOULIN – Painted turtles were the featured subject of a presentation made at the Manitoulin Nature Club meeting held last week. 

On Friday, May 29, the nature club held its second Zoom meeting for its members. Since social distancing rules took effect back in March, the club has not been able to hold its regular meetings at the Mindemoya Community Centre on the last Friday of every month. For the April meeting it was decided to try to hold a meeting via Zoom as a way to keep the members connected and informed about what’s happening in the natural world on Manitoulin and further afield. Following the success of that endeavour, the club decided to proceed with the same format for its May meeting.

Guest speaker Steven Kell presented a talk and PowerPoint presentation from his home in Parry Sound. The topic, ‘Are Turtles Truly as Slow as We Thought?’ focused on Painted Turtles, the most common turtle on Manitoulin. It was based on research he conducted in Algonquin Park for the past seven years, which eventually led to a master’s thesis in biology at Laurentian University.
As well as information on turtles in general (for example, did you know snapping turtles can live up to 200 years?), the talk paid particular attention to nesting habits of the painted turtle. Mr. Kell’s research revealed that female painted turtles spend a lot of time and energy finding the perfect spot to lay their eggs.

He also found that they prefer to nest in close proximity to each other, sometimes even laying their eggs on top of an already existing clutch of eggs. This is thought to “saturate” or “swamp” the area with eggs so that predators like foxes and ravens are less likely to wipe out a particular turtle’s nest. As he said, “predators are less likely to find a single group of many eggs than many scattered small groups… as the number of eggs increases, the potential for predation for each mother, neonate or egg is reduced.”

Another remarkable finding was that, regardless of the date on which the eggs are laid, there is good evidence to indicate that there is some sort of communication going on between the embryos inside eggs in close proximity, allowing them to regulate the rate of growth so that all the hatchlings come out at the same time. Again, this is based on the theory that a large number of baby turtles all scrambling for the safety of a nearby watercourse have a better chance of surviving predators than single individuals making their way on their own.

These amazing animals are much more social than was previously thought. They do a lot more than sitting on logs, soaking up the sun. While not as endangered as other turtle species, they are a key species, playing a critical role in our wetland ecosystems.