Protecting and enhancing the natural values of Salt Spring Island and its surrounding waters


Western Painted Turtle

Western Painted Turtle

Chrysemys picta is a relatively common turtle throughout much of its range. In Canada, there are three subspecies which extend from Ontario westward to British Columbia. In BC, the Western Painted Turtle subspecies (Chrysemys picta belli) can be found, with the Pacific Coast population being federally listed as endangered. This population includes turtles in the Fraser River valley and Lower Mainland, as well as small populations on Vancouver Island and some of the Gulf Islands, including Salt Spring Island.

This freshwater species of turtle requires wetland habitat in low elevation forests and grasslands. The wetland habitat must have muddy bottoms, abundant vegetation and basking sites (such as logs). The basking sites are important places for the turtles to thermoregulate so that they warm up and have enough energy to forage, mate, and lay their eggs. The adult turtles lie dormant on the substrate of muddy ponds and lakes during winters. They also use the wetlands for mating and foraging. The females require upland habitat with well-drained soils. This is the habitat that surrounds the wetlands, as females will nest up to 150 metres from the water body, depending on the suitability of habitat. Females dig a hole or nest and deposit up to 23 oval eggs which are generally laid between dusk and dawn in June or July. The turtles generally prefer to lay their eggs on warm, south-facing sites with loose soils. On Salt Spring Island, this type of habitat can often be found in small high-traffic public access beaches with sand, or on private ponds or lakefront properties. Once the eggs are laid, they are left to incubate for about 76 days. When they hatch in September, the baby turtles will often stay in the nest and wait out the winter, not emerging until the weather warms in the spring. Females lay only one clutch of eggs, every other year.

As turtles prefer much of the same habitat characteristics that humans do, it comes as little surprise that loss of both productive pond and lake habitat as well as natural nesting sites are in steady decline. Other threats that the turtles face include habitat alteration from fragmentation, degradation of shorelines, changes in hydrology, and water contamination. Road mortality can also impact populations, especially for females heading to a nesting site, or juveniles who are attempting to disperse to new locations. Roads can also negatively impact water quality, impinge on nesting habitats, and increase the risk of predation by increasing the access for predators. Human harassment at basking or nesting sites can also impact the turtles, and as well as harvesting turtles for the pet trade. So if you see a turtle, slow down, let it pass, allow it some space on the beach and avoid disturbing a nesting site.