Published on Thu, 05/17/2018 by Nature Conservancy of Canada

Turtles: Canada's culture in a shell

By Raechel Bonomo, Staff Writer at the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC)

On May 23, World Turtle Day, the Nature Conservancy of Canada celebrates these slow but steady creatures.

It was a gloomy day in southern Ontario. Although the canoe I paddled in was quiet, the landscape was anything but, filled with croaks and chirping. Ten feet away emerged a small creature from the glass-like water to stretch its tiny head from under a strong shell. Swimming through shadowy water, the darkness of the lake only made its yellow neck more prevalent. As we carefully paddled closer to our new friend, he greeted us with a distinguishable smile. It was a Blanding’s turtle.

Turtles are often a familiar sight on summer canoe trips across Canada. On May 23, World Turtle Day, the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) celebrates these slow but steady creatures.

Members of Canada’s turtle club

Blanding's turtle (Photo by Ryan M. Bolton)There are 12 species of turtles in Canada. Blanding’s turtles, such as the one I encountered, are found in southern parts of Ontario, Quebec and central-southwest Nova Scotia. Reaching up to 10 inches in length, this medium-sized turtle can live more than 75 years in the wild. Blanding’s turtles are easily characterized by their bright yellow throats and plastron (bottom shell) and an upward-curving mouth, making it look like the species is always smiling.

The painted turtle gets its name from its decorative olive-green carapace with red, orange and yellow markings. This species is divided into four subspecies: eastern painted, midland painted, western painted turtle and southern painted turtle (the first three are found in Canada). The painted turtle is the most widespread turtle in North America, with a Canadian distribution from British Columbia to Nova Scotia.

Reaching only four to six inches long, painted turtles are tiny compared to their snappy relative. Coming in at a whopping 18 inches long, the snapping turtle is Canada’s largest freshwater turtle species. Due to habitat degradation and human interference, snapping turtle populations are ranked as species of special concern by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC).

Turtles in First Nations culture

Northern Map Turtles (Photo by Ryan M. Bolton)In Canada, the turtle has a cultural significance as strong as the shell on its back. In some First Nations myths this powerful shell, called a carapace, is the foundation upon which the land was built.

In the Earth Diver myth, the Great Spirit dives, or orders animals to dive, into the water to bring back mud or clay from which he fashions the Earth. In other versions of this myth, the Earth is formed on the back of a turtle. Stemming from this tale is the name Turtle Island, a popular name for North America.

How NCC is protecting habitat for turtles

Turtles continue to affect the way we view the land. In Quebec, the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) is taking precautions to ensure the habitat of map turtles is protected on the Hochelaga Archipelago. Staff are implementing a conservation plan that provides concrete recommendations to limit population loss of species such a map turtle.

In the Ottawa Valley, NCC encourages the public to report any sightings of Blanding’s turtles and help them safely across busy roads.

In Nova Scotia, NCC staff conducted turtle surveys to monitor populations. And on NCC’s Silver River property in Nova Scotia, turtle fences were installed by Conservation Volunteers to ensure snapping turtles have adequate nesting grounds.

From its representation in Canadian culture to its widespread distribution in Canadian habitats, it is no wonder why this species deserves its day to bask in the sun.

To learn more about the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC), visit

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northern_map_turtles_ryan_m_bolton.jpgNorthern Map Turtles (Photo by Ryan M. Bolton) (JPG)992.29 KB