Spiny Softshell Turtle Recovery in Quebec
Patrick Paré – Zoo de Granby, Canada
The goal of this long-term project is to increase the recruitment of spiny softshell turtles (Apalone spinifera) in Lake Champlain, Quebec, Canada and reduce the threats faced by the species. This species is considered threatened at the federal and provincial levels. This is the only population in Quebec, straddling the border with Vermont, and is disjunct from the core range of the species in the USA. The main threats are habitat loss and degradation, flooding, predation, accidental deaths (boating and fishing) and human disturbance.
Quebec's spiny softshell turtle recovery team, created in 1997 (which Zoo de Granby is a part of since its creation), takes decisions on the orientation and planning of the project. Since 2003, we are conducting annual monitoring at one of two known nesting sites, on the banks of Rivière aux Brochets, a tributary of Lake Champlain. It is the only reliable nesting site known for the species in Quebec.
Until 2009, we studied the hatching success and implemented in situ nest protection and translocation (to higher grounds, less prone to flooding). We found that hatching success at this site is around 28% in spite of our efforts (observation of eight to 12 nests per season, which is believed to be close to the total of nests laid at this site). Predation, mainly by raccoons, and human disturbance are issues; however, flooding of the nesting sites is more detrimental and has been linked to very low hatching rates. Considering these results, we started artificial incubation with two nests. As our expertise improved, we increased the number of nests: since 2009, we collected 51 nests, resulting in the release of 770 turtles up to June 2016. Our artificially incubated nests have a hatching success of 83% (of those that did not hatch, 39% had some foetal development and the rest were probably infertile). Nest monitoring and artificial incubation in the long term (planned until 2020) are considered to be the main actions to achieve recovery of the species in the Lake Champlain region. In addition, we keep juveniles (two nests per year) as part of our head-starting effort. The plan is to release them 10 months later, at the beginning of the summer.
We have also begun to visit another known private nesting site in 2015. It is located in Chapman Bay, which is part of the lake, in opposition to the other site that is on a river. The site was explored around 2000 and it has great potential, with many radio-tracked females visiting the area. The actual goal is to obtain more information on its use by spiny softshell turtles, and more broadly on the population dynamics in Lake Champlain. This implies that we will have to study it to evaluate the natural hatching rate, the frequency of visits, the need for nest monitoring and collection, etc.
At another level, we work with the community to improve awareness of its environment, local fauna and more specifically the spiny softshell turtle. We developed communication and education tools for four target audiences: schools, farmers, recreational boaters and local residents. Conferences are presented in five municipalities where the softshell turtle lives and we collaborate with two schools that receive multiple visits from a biologist accompanied by a live turtle. In 2016 will happen the first edition of the Turtle Festival in the municipality of Pike River, an initiative from the community itself.
Through all these actions, we want to keep in touch and further our collaboration with other individuals or groups working on the spiny softshell turtle: Upper Thames River Conservation Authority in Ontario, Echo Lake Aquarium and Science Center in Burlington (Vermont) and the specialists at Wildlife Preservation Canada. Biologists of the Ministère des Forêts, de la Faune et des Parc Québec, Nature Conservancy Canada and Organisme de bassin versant de Baie-Missisquoi are long-time collaborators and members of the recovery team.