Monday, April 26, 2010

Caution: Turtle crossing

An adult female Western painted turtle shows off her colours. The subspecies is the last native turtle to survive on Vancouver Island. BELOW RIGHT: A sign urges drivers to go slow on Beaver Lake Road outside Victoria. BELOW LEFT: A hatchling is about the size of a Loonie. All photographs by Christian Engelstoft.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
April 26, 2010


A resident of Beaver Lake Road, just north of Victoria, reported the sad news.

Hit and run. Five victims. Likely never knew what hit them.

The unseen culprit? Believed to have departed the scene with nary a backward glance.

Left on the pavement were the remains of five turtle hatchlings. Squished.

These were Western painted turtles, a species plentiful in other locales but endangered on southern Vancouver Island.

Their untimely demise marked 10 dead turtles on the same stretch of rural road in the past three years.

So, to cut down on the road kill, the District of Saanich has erected a orange hazard sign at either end of Beaver Lake Road.


It features a silhouette of a turtle.

No kidding it’s a go-slow zone.

The poor hatchlings barely stood a chance against oncoming traffic.

“They’re small,” said Christian Engelstoft, a biologist, “so they don’t go very fast.”

The baby turtles, no bigger than a Loonie, were likely trying to make their way from their nesting area to a nearby pond to feed.

While the loss of hatchlings is unfortunate, it could be devastating to the local population should a mature female be killed on the road later this summer. Hence the signs.

An adult Western painted is about as large as a dinner plate, so somewhat more visible to motorists.

The mothers travel as far as 150 metres — about the length of a Canadian football field — in search of well-drained, sandy soil in which to lay eggs.

Since roads often border bodies of water, the four-legged reptiles wind up playing chicken against four-wheel (or more) vehicles.

It’s not safe, even if wearing permanent body armour.

Mr. Engelstoft is an unabashed turtle fan. With colleague Kristina Ovaska, they provide scientific advice to the Western Painted Turtle Recovery Team operated by the non-profit Habitat Acquisition Trust.

The thing about the Western painted is that they’re shy. (With us. Not each other. The fault for their low population rests elsewhere. Mostly in the loss of wetlands through urbanization.)

“They are quite skittish,” he said. “They see you before you see them, so you don’t see them.”

He recently returned from a canvass of nesting sites near Port Alberni. He did so on foot, though finds canoes a quieter means of investigation. They spotted 21 turtles in one lake, eight more in another.

Add two spots along the Nanaimo River, six sites on Galiano Island, a threatened nesting area in Metchosin, and a scattering of sites outside Victoria, and you have the extent of the Western painted’s reach on the island.

They are believed to be the island’s sole remaining native turtle, the Western pond turtle no longer found here. The few remaining Western painted also have to share habitat with red-eared sliders, who were introduced to these parts by disgruntled pet owners. Mr. Engelstoft has seen those reptilian cousins sharing space on a log, but admits no one knows how well they get along, especially during mating season.

The biologist admits to being a pond voyeur.

“I really enjoy looking at basking turtles. Why? They’re just sitting there having a great time soaking up the sun. We don’t see them when they’re at the bottom of the lake.”

Not only is their seasonal commute a danger, but the Western painted is something of an hors d’oeuvre for the likes of crows, ravens, and otters. One suspects the occasional dimwitted Fido may mistake one for a squeaky toy.

The plight of a road-crossing terrapin is the subject of a children’s book by the American author and illustrator Rick Chrustowski. He titled his book, “Turtle Crossing.” The protagonist is a five-year-old female crossing a road to lay eggs when a car approaches. She tucks into her shell and (Spoiler Alert!) ... she gets some human assistance. (Hey, it’s a kids book. You were expecting a blood-soaked Quentin Tarantino climax?)

The turtle’s range extends across the southen Canadian prairies through the American Plains. Two years ago, the turtle was named the official reptile of Colorado, following a lobbying effort by elementary school students who liked them for being “slow, harmless and cute.”

The Western painted gets its name from the striking red-and-orange patterns found on the plastron, the underside of the shell. Its formal name is Chrysemys picta bellii, which is apparently Latin for jaywalker.

Normally, picking up turtles is frowned upon, but a little biped hitchhike is acceptable. If you see a Western painted crossing the road, by all means help it on its journey.

The turtle people ask that you call them (250-995-2428) with details about the encounter. Turtle paparazzi are also encouraged.

A hatchling takes a first look at the world after spending winter underground. Christian Engelstoft photograph.

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