Atlantic Veterinary College and Acadia University collaborate to help endangered species

Blandings turtles have lived in southwestern Nova Scotia for more than 10,000 years, but because of their small and isolated population, these freshwater turtles are on the endangered species list.

Researchers at the Atlantic Veterinary College at UPEI and Acadia University in Nova Scotia are collaborating on a project that they hope will contribute to the conservation of the reptiles. Only 300-500 Blandings turtles live in three small groups in southwest Nova Scotia—the only population of the species east of Ontario.

Dr. Stephen Mockford, Associate Professor of Biology at Acadia University, brought 50 two-year-old Blandings turtles from the Nova Scotia population to AVC recently where Dr. Marion Desmarchelier, AVC’s Zoo, Exotic Animal and Wildlife Medical Service, determined their gender by performing an internal examination of each one under general anesthesia, with an endoscope.

Like other turtle species, the sex of Blandings turtles is determined by the temperature at which the eggs are incubated; eggs incubated at temperatures below 25C produce nearly all males, and those incubated above 30C are nearly all females. Blandings turtles can live for more than 80 years and normally mature sexually at 14 or 15, but those in Nova Scotia do not mature until they are 20.

Mockford said that researchers are trying to determine how various incubation temperatures affect the gender of the turtles particularly in the light of climate change.

“We are trying to learn more about the natural history of the turtles so we can make informed decisions in the conservation and recovery of the Nova Scotia Blandings turtles as climate change progresses.”

To carry out the project, eggs were collected from nests in Kejimkujik National Park in 2009 and 2010 and incubated at Oaklawn Farm Zoo, in Aylesford, Nova Scotia, and the Toronto Zoo. The eggs were incubated at different temperatures, and the hatchlings raised in captivity until they were two years. Last year, 100 young turtles were examined at AVC to determine their gender.

Mockford said this project has benefits that go beyond helping the endangered Blandings turtles.

“The collaboration among the partners, including AVC and Acadia University, is instrumental in moving this research forward,” he said. “Beyond the value of the research, and the collaboration itself, this has provided valuable experience for students at both institutions.”

Desmarchelier echoed Mockford’s comments, adding that working with the turtles is invaluable practical experience for veterinary students, many of whom will encounter wildlife species and pet turtles in their veterinary practices.

“This project provided our team with the rare opportunity to anesthetize, sample blood and perform internal endoscopies in more than 150 turtles over two years,” she says. “It’s a great experience for students, interns and researchers to collect data and learn how to take good care of these very special creatures.”

The turtles will be released in Kejimkujik National Park next week where they will be monitored to see if their habitat use and movement is the same as that of turtles raised in the wild.

Nova Scotia Blandings turtles live near lakes, rivers and wetlands in summer, and in small spring-fed flood plain pools and deep brooks in winter. Females nest on old wood roads, gravel pits, cobble beaches and even in gardens. Major threats include habitat loss due to human development, road mortality, and predation of eggs and young by small mammals, ravens, and ants. Fewer than one per cent of the young survive to adulthood.

Click here for more information about Nova Scotia’s Blandings turtles.

Photo: The exotics ward at AVC was a busy spot recently when staff and students from AVC and Acadia University worked to determine the gender of 50 endangered Blandings turtles.