Ottawa’s Urban Turtles

February 8, 2007 — Cheryl Doran writes:

I’d like to share with you an Ottawa good news story! It’s about biodiversity and a refuge for species that are threatened with extinction. It’s a story about Turtles. Quiet, timid, complacent little creatures that live to be well over 70 years old and their unique home is right here in Ottawa.

Just 15 minutes south of the Parliament buildings, in the nation’s capital, with careful and cautious planning to date, the city of Ottawa together with the Federal Government have been able to preserve the habitat for a variety of species at risk. This area of the Greenbelt, is found near the Medeola Woods (A. Dugal) — Ottawa’s largest stand of old growth trees, many of which are about 200 years old. The wetland in this wooded area is home to a variety of wildlife species—what makes this wetland area special is its diverse turtle population. It is this urban turtle habitat that makes Ottawa unique among the cities of the world.

As far as we’ve been able to determine, no other city in a temperate climate has such a rich and unique turtle population. The turtle habitat contains Blanding’s Turtles (Threatened, SAR), Northern Map Turtles (Special concern, SAR), Painted Turtles and Snapping Turtles. While each one of these species is special, two of them are on the Province of Ontario’s Species at Risk list, and on the Federal Government’s Species at Risk list (SARA) which means that as a species, these turtles are threatened by, or vulnerable to extinction.

The success of this diverse population of turtles is due to the combination of suitable nesting areas and wetlands. The wetlands are especially important because they contain a pond and streams that do not freeze solid and are essential for the winter survival of the turtles. Any change to this winter habitat will result in the turtle population being drastically reduced and perhaps eliminated. The most threatened of the turtles in the sanctuary is the Blanding’s Turtle, one of eight native Ontario turtles usually found in the southern part of the province. This shy turtle is easily identified by its smooth helmet-shaped carapace which is covered with a multitude of small yellow dots. The Blanding’s Turtle is a timid turtle and may plunge into water and remain on the bottom for hours when alarmed.

Blanding’s Turtles are in decline in Ontario. There are populations that exist elsewhere in the province, but many of them are small and disconnected. The habitat in this area has been steadily whittled away for almost a hundred years—it’s now at the tipping point. The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada—the federal government’s authority for assessing the conservation status of species that may be at risk of extinction in Canada—notes that a key reason why the Blanding’s turtle is declining towards extinction is not only the steady loss of habitat across its entire range but the fragmentation of the remaining habitat into smaller and smaller areas. This urban turtle habitat area is owned by the city of Ottawa and the Federal Government – continues to lack protection.

Please see Dr. Schueler’s press release regarding the discovery of the breeding population of the Blanding’s Turtle in the Greenbelt:

Also learn more at