Turtles: Canada's culture in a shell

Blanding's turtle, Frontenac Arch Natural Area, ON (Photo by Ryan M. Bolton)

Blanding's turtle, Frontenac Arch Natural Area, ON (Photo by Ryan M. Bolton)

May 19, 2016 | by Raechel Bonomo | 6 Comments

It was a gloomy day in southern Ontario. Although the canoe I paddled in was quiet, the landscape was anything but, filled with croaks and chirping. Ten feet away emerged a small creature from the glass-like water to stretch its tiny head from under a strong shell. Swimming through shadowy water, the darkness of the lake only made its yellow neck more prevalent. As we carefully paddled closer to our new friend, he greeted us with a distinguishable smile. It was a Blanding’s turtle.

Turtles are often a familiar sight on summer canoe trips across Canada. On May 23, World Turtle Day, the Nature Conservancy of Canada celebrates these slow but steady creatures.

Members of Canada’s turtle club

There are 12 species of turtles in Canada. Blanding’s turtles, such as the one I encountered, are found in southern parts of Ontario, Quebec and central-southwest Nova Scotia. Reaching up to 10 inches in length, this medium-sized turtle can live more than 75 years in the wild. Blanding’s turtles are easily characterised by their bright yellow throats and plastron (bottom shell) and an upward-curving mouth, making it look like the species is always smiling.

Midland painted turtle hatchling (Photo by NCC)

Midland painted turtle hatchling (Photo by NCC)

The painted turtle gets its name from its decorative olive-green carapace with red, orange and yellow markings. This species is divided into four subspecies: eastern painted, midland painted, western painted turtle and southern painted turtle (the first three are found in Canada). The painted turtle is the most widespread turtle in North America, with a Canadian distribution from British Columbia to Nova Scotia.

Snapping turtle crossing the road, ON (Photo by NCC)

Snapping turtle crossing the road, ON (Photo by NCC)

Reaching only four to six inches long, painted turtles are tiny compared to their snappy relative. Coming in at a whopping 18 inches long, the snapping turtle is Canada’s largest freshwater turtle species. Due to habitat degradation and human interference, snapping turtle populations are ranked as species of special concern by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC).

Learn more about Canada’s turtles here >

Turtles in First Nations culture

In Canada, the turtle has a cultural significance as strong as the shell on its back. In some First Nations myths this powerful shell, called a carapace, is the foundation upon which the land was built.

In the Earth Diver myth, the Great Spirit dives, or orders animals to dive, into the water to bring back mud or clay from which he fashions the Earth. In other versions of this myth, the Earth is formed on the back of a turtle. Stemming from this tale is the name Turtle Island, a popular name for North America.

Turtles in Indigenous Canadian art

"The Four Elements - Water," Mark Anthony Jacobson, silk screen print (Image courtesy of the artist)

Nature has played a strong influence in First Nations art, and the turtle is no stranger to the canvas.

Mark Anthony Jackson uses his art to connect viewers with Canadian wildlife. In his piece “The Four Elements — Water,” a turtle adorned with the same yellow throat I saw that dreary Sunday morning depicts the species’ connection to the land.

First Nations artist Norval Morrisseau depicts the Earth Driver myth in his painting Turtle Island, and has illustrated the species in several of his works, including "Androgyny," which once hung in Rideau Hall.

How NCC is protecting habitat for turtles

Turtles continue to affect the way we view the land. In Quebec, the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) is taking precautions to ensure the habitat of map turtles is protected on the Hochelaga Archipelago. Staff are implementing a conservation plan that provides concrete recommendations to limit population loss of species such a map turtle.

In the Ottawa Valley, NCC encourages the public to report any sightings of Blanding’s turtles and help them safely across busy roads.

In Nova Scotia, NCC staff conducted turtle surveys to monitor populations. And on NCC’s Silver River property in Nova Scotia, turtle fences were installed by Conservation Volunteers to ensure snapping turtles have adequate nesting grounds.

From its representation in Canadian culture to its widespread distribution in Canadian habitats, it is no wonder why this species deserves its day to bask in the sun.

About the Author

Raechel Bonomo is the editorial coordinator at the Nature Conservancy of Canada.

Read more about Raechel Bonomo.

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