Hundreds of baby turtles begin to hatch at ‘turtle nursery’ in Cambridge

Nearly 2,000 turtle eggs are in the process of hatching at a turtle nursery in Cambridge, Ont.

The eggs were collected from the sides of roads in June and July to protect the baby turtles from being hit by cars. In August, they begin to hatch. 

Part of Sarah Marshall’s daily routine is to check on the nearly 2,000 turtle eggs she and her team have been gathering.

“After the August-long weekend, we come in daily, even on weekends to check for hatchlings every morning,” said Marshall, a conservation technician with RARE Charitable Research Reserve.

“We get to a point where the expectation is that we’re living and breathing turtles.”

Marshall leads their Turtle Nursery Project, which launched several years ago in response to the large number of turtles being injured on the road. 

Conservation technician, Sarah Marshall, checks on nearly 2,000 turtle eggs every morning in August, including weekends, to see if any have hatched. (Carmen Groleau/CBC)

During the summer months, it’s not uncommon to find Marshall and her team hunched over digging on the gravel shoulder of roads, where turtles like to nest.

Marshall said even though gravel is ideal for turtles to make their nests, it puts them at a greater risk of getting hit by a vehicle when they do it close to roads.

“It takes about 200 eggs to make an adult turtle because of how high their infant mortality is,” she said.

Logging information

The largest snapping turtle nest she found this year was near light-rail tracks in Waterloo, with 59 eggs. Most of the eggs under Marshall’s care are snapping turtles with a few painted turtle eggs in the mix.

Once the eggs are collected from the nest, they’re put in plastic Tupperware containers filled with vermiculite. Then, they’re labelled and put in an incubator at 84 F (29 C) for several months.

Sarah Marshall is measuring a snapping turtle that recently hatched. She logs the information to a spreadsheet that can then be made available to researchers. (Carmen Groleau/CBC)

Marshall said hatching is slow at the beginning of August, but then it ramps up at the end of the month.

Each hatchling is weighed and measured. The information is logged in a spreadsheet that can then be made available to universities or researchers.

A few days after hatching, Marshall and her team release the tiny turtles in wetlands near where they were found.

“Not a huge number of hatchlings make it to adulthood, but at least we get them through the first, hardest hurdle,” she said.

Marshall, conservation technician at RARE in Cambridge, Ont., stands in front of a turtle fence that’s being installed on Roseville Road. (Carmen Groleau/CBC)

More turtle fences needed 

Marshall says more turtle fences, like the one being installed on Roseville Road in Cambridge, are needed to protect the region’s turtle population. 

The fencing directs turtles to under-road tunnels so they can pass underneath traffic safely.

Despite the pandemic stalling the number of vehicles on roads, Marshall said they still received calls about injured turtles being found on the side of the road.

“Projects like this makes such a big difference to turtle conservation,” she said.

“I think protecting adult turtles from crossing the road and getting hit in the first place does so much more than what I do.”

Workers in Cambridge are installing a turtle fence that will guide the turtles to this little tunnel. (Carmen Groleau/CBC)

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