In March of 2015 the Ecomuseum Zoo was granted crucial support from its partners in order to undertake an important conservation project for one of Québec’s lesser known turtles: the Musk Turtle. As early as May of this year, the zoo began the study of the province’s smallest turtle in an area where the species has just recently been observed: Lac Saint-François.
Why help the Musk Turtle in Québec?
Just as the Eastern Spiny Softshell and Spotted Turtles, the Musk Turtle, also known as the Stinkpot Turtle, is one of Québec’s endangered species. Decidedly, this means that discovering the Musk Turtle in Lac Saint-François is a big deal! Indeed, it is very rare in the province. Prior to 2014, the only known population of this species was found in the Ottawa River west of Gatineau.
Happily, the Musk Turtle was recently discovered in Lac Saint-François. Yeah! Two individuals were seen in this vast body of water bordered by many swamps and marshes. The discovery raised many questions about this enigmatic species. What size is the population in the area? How far does the population reach within the lake boundaries? What habitats are the Musk Turtles using? … But most of all we want to know if the population is doing well. Are the individuals and habitats healthy? What could potentially put this population’s survival in peril? And what can we do to help?
The destruction and alteration of habitats particularly threaten this species in Québec. Quite aquatic by nature, accidental fishing and boat propellers increase mortality rates in adults thereby greatly impacting population density.
First and foremost, we start at the beginning with the important steps. In order to best define how to help the Musk Turtle we must first determine where they live and how the population is doing. In essence: Where are they hidden and what is the state of their habitat? A field survey is therefore a must!
But where should we start looking?
Finding the Musk Turtle is quite the challenge! Indeed, it is small and stealthy. The species is quite adept at hiding as it very rarely exits the water. Unlike the Common Map Turtle that will raise its core temperature by basking in the sun in the open air on a rock or log, the Musk Turtle will increase its body temperature by remaining under water and hiding beneath floating vegetation. Just as active at night, colored either brown or grey and often covered in algae, the Musk Turtle blends in perfectly with its surroundings. In Québec, its preferred habitats are shallow bays of large bodies of water where the bottom remains murky and where floating aquatic vegetation, both submerged and emerging, is abundant.
What exactly will we do?
For a period of 3 weeks in May 2015, two Ecomuseum Zoo field teams scoured day and night the shores and bays of Lac Saint-François looking for Musk Turtles. To improve the chances of finding these secretive beings that are difficult to observe, these teams are composed of seasoned experts that have a keen eye for such surveillance.
What do we do when we find them? We document their health status, we measure them and we note the area where they were found. Additionally, we record distinguishing marks to correctly differentiate individuals thereby ensuring we don’t count turtles twice.
And then what?
Once all the data has been collected and the results compiled, then it’s time for action for protection! A plan for intervention will be drafted designating clearly the zones to prioritize for the actions that will be required to better protect the Musk Turtle’s habitat in Lac Saint-François.
Subsequently, the objective will be to approach and present the plan to local conservation organisations and affected municipalities. It is with the help of these partners that concrete actions will be undertaken. The protection of the Musk Turtle habitat equals the protection of natural aquatic and shoreline settings that help ensure that the quality of the air we breathe and the water we drink remains high.
The project’s ultimate goal is to ensure that local citizens make use of the territory in ways that harmonize with the maintenance of healthy aquatic and shoreline habitats so that the Musk Turtles and other species that live in the same environment, can continue to thrive for years to come. Notably such other species as the Northern Pike, the Yellow Perch, the Large-Mouth Bass, herons, ducks, muskrats and numerous other species from the area.
The project partners
This project is undertaken in part thanks to a contribution from the Interactions communautaires program. The financing of this joint program linked to the Plan d’action Saint-Laurent 2011-2016, is shared between Environment Canada and the ministère du Développement durable, de l’Environnement et de la Lutte contre les changements climatiques du Québec. This project is also made possible thanks to the support of the Fondation de la faune du Québec, the ministère de la Forêt, de la Faune et des Parcs du Québec and the Service canadien de la faune.
Stay tuned as we will keep you informed of the project results when activities officially end on March 31st 2016.