Pike River and its spiny softshell turtles
Eastern spiny softshell turtle (Photo by Kim Pardi)
Spiny... softshell... turtle... What? But what is a spiny softshell turtle? I'm not talking about Bowser, the giant video game turtle with spikes on his shell! I'm talking about a real species of turtle, living in Quebec and endangered in Canada.
Why is it called that in the first place?
It is a rather peculiar turtle, but one whose name fits very well. Most turtles are recognizable by their hard shell. This one is covered with keratin, the same material that forms human nails and hair. Yes, you read that right; turtles have the equivalent of a big fingernail on their back! Soft-shelled turtles, on the other hand, have no keratin. That's why the bones that form the carapace are instead covered with a kind of very thick skin similar to leather and somewhat soft to the touch. The spines are small and difficult to see. They are located on the front edge of the carapace. And there you have the spiny softshell turtle!
Competition for sandy beaches
The reason this turtle is so rare is that it has very specific needs and, unfortunately for it, people’s widespread desire to enjoy anything resembling a beach is not very compatible with those needs. In fact, the spiny softshell turtle is mainly aquatic. It needs a water basin at least three meters deep to hibernate during winter, a shallower place with sandy soil, to be able to bury itself, as well as sandy or small gravel beaches where it lays its eggs. The problem is that humans consider such beaches as ideal places to build cottages or to swim, which affects these natural environments enormously.
More and more, the banks of lakes and rivers where these gentle reptiles live are being cleared. Without vegetation to control spring flooding, the banks get flooded and turtle eggs are drowned. With no vegetation to filter the water flowing into the lake, water quality worsens, while runoff from farmland brings too many nutrients to water bodies, making it difficult for turtles to breathe below the surface.
A solution that works swimmingly
Baby spiny softshell turtle, QC (Photo by NCC)
The only existing population of spiny softshell turtles in Quebec is located in the Lake Champlain region. Much effort has been put into raising awareness among residents and boaters regarding this very special turtle. The Zoo de Granby has been active in the region for several years, first by estimating the number of turtles through remote measurement, but later by also becoming surrogate parents of sorts! Indeed, each year, the Zoo's conservation team goes to collect eggs from the one known egg-laying site in Quebec, which is located in the Rivière aux Brochets, and hatches them at the Zoo, where they are sheltered from spring floods that could otherwise drown them. Finally, once hatched, the baby turtles are released back into their natural habitat.
The Nature Conservancy of Canada isn’t standing idly by either! Two properties whose banks have remained in their natural state have been acquired in the Pike River sector. While these two properties have a combined area of just under two hectares, they are of vital importance to several species, including the spiny softshell turtle. Remote monitoring carried out by the Zoo de Granby has demonstrated that the area is used by the hatchlings.
Watch this video to hear experts discuss the acquisition of the properties, while Zoo de Granby partners teach us more and release young turtles back into the wild. Enjoy!
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