Eastern Spiny Softshell Turtle


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Eastern Spiny Softshell Turtle

It may be a Softshell Turtle but life can be hard!

The Spiny Softshell Turtle (Apalone spinifera) is unique among our species of turtles. Unlike other species, its shell is without rigid scales and is covered with a thick leather-like skin. This feature gives it the vague appearance of a large flat pancake with legs. Its elongated trumpet-shaped nose gives it a sympathetic look and adds to its charm.

Years ago this species was found in the Ottawa, Richelieu, and St. Lawrence rivers as well as Lake Champlain. Today, the only known populations of Spiny Softshell Turtles in Québec are found in Lake Champlain and Pike River representing a fraction of the territory they once covered. The small number of individuals coupled with habitat loss related to the recreational and agricultural vocation of Lake Champlain and the surrounding land, have led to the threatened status of this species in Québec.

As early as 1997 the Spiny Softshell Turtle Recovery Team and the Ecomuseum Zoo initiate radio-telemetry monitoring programs to track individuals and identify habitats utilized by these turtles. The species is faithful and returns year after year to the same sites to spawn and hibernate.  These habitats are however reduced in size each year by increased human activities such as riverbank modifications, water pollution and boating.  Although steps undertaken by the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) to acquire land and protect habitat have resulted in habitat protection, numerous threats to the survival of the Spiny Softshell Turtle remain.

As such, one of only two known nesting sites for the species in Québec is regularly inundated by flash flood waters from the river. In past years, the excess flood waters were absorbed by nearby wetlands acting as sponges. Today, these wetlands have disappeared and have been replaced by well-drained farmland.

In order to increase hatch rates for the species, the Ecomuseum Zoo and the Granby Zoo, together with the Spiny Softshell Turtle Recovery Team, have, since 2009, incubated clutches of eggs in laboratory settings. The operation has been a resounding success; between 2009 and 2013, 475 hatchlings were returned to the waters near the nesting site just a few days after hatching.

For the Ecomuseum Zoo and the recovery team, another milestone has been reached in the protection of this species. However, much remains to be done to ensure the future of the Spiny Softshell Turtle in Québec.