This Week’s Endangered Species in Focus: Spiny Softshell (Apalone spinifera) Turtle

Spiny Softshell (Apalone spinifera) Turtle

 

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Status: Threatened Provincially and Nationally

 

Description:

The spiny softshell turtle is one of the largest freshwater turtle species in North America. It is Ontario’s only turtle with a flexible, leathery upper shell. The shell is olive-grey, brownish or tan, and its edges are yellow with a black outline, along each side of the head is a distinct yellow stripe outlined in black. In adult females, the shell may be smooth, but there are several large spines or cone-like projections.  Spiny softshells begin mating between the ages 8 and 10 in mid-to-late spring and the eggs will hatch in late August to September.

 

Important Dates:

 

2008: Species assessed as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act

 

June 30, 2013: Species granted Habitat Protection

 

 

 

Range:

  • In Canada, the Spiny Softshell is found only in Quebec and southwestern Ontario in the Lake St. Clair, Lake Erie and western Lake Ontario watersheds;
  • The majority of Spiny Softshells in Ontario are found in the Thames and Sydenham Rivers, as well as two sites in Lake Erie;
  • Some turtles travel up to 30 km. in a year from one part of their home range to another.

 

Habitat:

  • Generally found in rivers with soft bottoms, aquatic vegetation and sandbars or mudflats;
  • Require gravelly or sandy areas for nesting and deep water for hibernating;
  • They are active during the day, eating crayfish, aquatic insects and fish;
  • It rarely ventures far from the shoreline, and may be seen basking on beaches, sandbars, logs and rocks.

 

 

Threats:

  • The main factor responsible for the decline of this turtle is thought to be habitat loss or degradation resulting from shoreline development or agricultural activity;
  • This turtle suffers high mortality due to collisions with motorboats, trapping and fisheries
  • The nests of the Spiny Softshell are threatened by human recreational activities and predators such as raccoons and foxes.

 

Protection:

  • The Spiny Softshell is protected under the Ontario’s Endangered Species Act, 2007;
  • The Ontario’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act protects this species as well;
  • Some populations that live in Provincial Parks and Conservation Areas will receive further protection through their programs.

 

What YOU Can Do to Help:

  • Good nesting sites are limited; if you own riverfront property, maintain a buffer of open beach above the waterline; try not to disturb exposed sandbars or sand/gravel shorelines, especially during May to October;
  • To learn more about Ontario’s rare turtles, their habitat and conservation efforts, visit Ontario Nature’s Ontario Reptile and Amphibian Atlas (http://www.ontarionature.org/protect/species/herpetofaunal_atlas.php) or the Toronto Zoo Adopt-a-Pond (http://www.torontozoo.com/Adoptapond/);
  • The Spiny Softshell is at risk of collision with watercrafts; if you know they are in the area, proceed carefully and be observant while coming on shore, or driving over lakes and bays;

 

FUN FACTS:

  • Some turtles travel up to 30 kilometres in a year from one part of their home range to another;
  • Spiny softshells hibernate underwater in sand during the winter months; they can go without breathing for the entire winter and absorb small amounts of oxygen through their mouth;
  • Softshells ambush their prey by lying concealed in bottom mud;
  • A large female turtle may live up to 50 years;
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