Please give turtles (and snakes) a brake!
Snapping turtle (Photo by Ryan M. Bolton)
While on the road this spring, please keep an eye out for any suspicious looking sticks or rocks on the road — they could be snakes or turtles!
Every spring, many herptiles (snakes, turtles, frogs, toads and salamanders) will bask on roads and roadsides to soak up heat from the sun and the pavement. Some species, such as the snapping turtle, also use gravel roadsides to lay their eggs. Unfortunately, many of these basking and egg-laying animals often become victims of road mortality, one of the leading causes of population declines for many species of snakes, turtles and frogs across Ontario.
The Saugeen Bruce Peninsula is home to a variety of herptiles, including Ontario’s only rattlesnake, the massasauga. Tricia Stinnissen, a resource management officer at Bruce Peninsula National Park, completed her master’s thesis on herpetofauna road mortality on the northern Saugeen Bruce Peninsula, in partnership with the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC). Over the summers of 2012 and 2013, Tricia and her team cycled more than 10,000 kilometres, identifying hotspots and hot moments for road-related deaths in herptiles. She spotted 2,514 reptiles and amphibians on roadways, including midland painted turtles and snapping turtles, 10 species of snakes (including eastern ribbonsnake and milksnake), and eight species of salamanders, toads and frogs, of which 1,986 were dead. Ten per cent of the dead individuals were species at risk, including an astounding 68 massasaugas.
Eastern massassauga (Photo by Ryan M. Bolton)
Amphibians and reptiles play an important role in almost all ecosystems and serve as both predators and prey for many animals. Herptiles are also important indicators of ecosystem health and are often referred to as “bio-indicators.” Due to amphibians’ permeable skin and their ability to live in both aquatic and terrestrial habitats, these animals can show signs of stress from negative environmental impacts before other species. In other words, turtles, snakes, toads and frogs are the proverbial “canary in the coal mine” and warn us of environmental stress and deterioration.
Although Tricia’s research was completed in 2013, the threat of road mortality to turtles, snakes and frogs is still a major concern and a significant cause of population decline. Knowledge of local herptile road mortality hotspots can help conservation organizations like NCC take measures to reduce deaths, such as installing exclusion fencing. These fences divert animals into culverts or specially designed passages under the road so that they can safely move between areas. Wildlife crossing signs can also be installed in problem areas.
This spring, NCC will be installing four “Please Brake for Snake” signs along Johnson’s Harbour Road with the help of the Northern Bruce Municipality. These signs are being placed in areas with a history of massasauga and other herptile mortality located by NCC’s Crane River Tract and aim to alert road users to watch out for herptiles that may be crossing the road and to slow down accordingly.
If you do encounter a reptile or amphibian on the road, help it cross when it is safe to do so (but please do not handle a massasauga under any circumstances!). Herptiles should always be moved in the direction in which they are facing, no matter what the surrounding habitat looks like. If herptiles are pointed in the wrong direction they will simply turn around and cross the road again. Never remove native reptiles or amphibians from the wild; it is illegal and can contribute to population declines.
So, as you get into your car this spring, summer or fall, please keep an eye out for basking snakes, turtles and amphibians on our roadways and help our local wildlife neighbours stay safe. With a bit of care, knowledge and a helping hand we can all play a part in the recovery of our local species.