Where have all the amphibians and reptiles gone?

by Theresa Peluso

Let’s start with a possible obituary for several species of amphibians and reptiles that were common in Eastern Ontario as recently as 30 years ago, but are now extirpated, endangered, threatened, or of special concern:

  • Gray ratsnake
  • Eastern hog-nosed snake
  • Eastern ribbonsnake
  • Milksnake
  • Wood turtle
  • Northern map turtle
  • Stinkpot (musk) turtle
  • Blanding’s turtle
  • Snapping turtle
  • Spotted turtle
  • Five-lined skink (Ontario’s only lizard)
  • Western chorus frog

How did this sad state of affairs come about? First of all, let’s consider where we often find these animals.  Up until the last 20 years or so, it’s been a common sight to see them on our roads.  The roads we keep building and enlarging break up and fragment their habitat, so that these amphibians and reptiles need to cross these stretches of asphalt where vehicles of all shapes and sizes zoom along, oblivious to their need to lay eggs, seek warmth, or find water or land for the next stage in their development.

Daniel Coates explains how in the early 1980s, along Martin Street North, past the railroad tracks heading north from Almonte, he used to notice “thousands of frogs lining the banks of the Mississippi River every 50 feet or so, as well as on the road (thousands dead, run over on the sides of roads, or live ones jumping across the road when it rained).” In the past 5 or 10 years he has noticed very few frogs in that area.

In a Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists lecture on turtles, Dr. Paul Keddy explained:

Nesting time is a dangerous time….After 50 weeks of peace, all hell breaks loose in June!  All the females of reproductive age climb out of the water and begin the laborious task of hiking around to find a nesting site. It is probably terrifying for them to leave the familiar water and venture onto land, but the nesting urge is too strong to resist. Once they find just the right location, they dig a hole, bury their eggs, and leave…. The eggs are heated by the summer sun, and then, in September, baby turtles about the size of a half-walnut dig their way up to the surface and somehow find their way back to water.

This means that without fail, usually near the middle of each June (and even earlier this year), we are treated to a parade of female turtles, wandering around our roads and properties, trying to nest. They have been doing this for about 200 million years, more or less. Turtles existed before the dinosaurs, and they even survived whatever it was that eliminated the dinosaurs. Despite their long history, turtles just have not had time to learn to adapt to two new things: cars and roads. That tiny brain has no idea that a road means danger. And so, increasingly, we are losing our turtles as the reproductive females (and often the eggs they contain) are killed on highways….The turtles being killed on our roads are usually the adult females — with the highest reproductive value. When a female is killed – it means the loss of hundreds of offspring she might have produced over future summers. These losses cannot be replaced. As a result, turtles that were present in my childhood, like musk turtles and Blanding’s turtles, are now uncommon. Not only do turtles just cross roads, they are actually attracted to roads. The warm sand and gravel along the road side makes a perfect nest site. So turtles will come long distances to climb onto the shoulder and lay their eggs. If drivers are careless, the highway becomes a ribbon of death. (P. Keddy, 2010)

Not only do you have inadvertent killing of these animals — there are actually cruel, morally bankrupt individuals who deliberately kill these creatures. In the July 26, 2012 edition of the Canadian Gazette, an article by Marla Shook describes how 7-year-old Aiden Gilmour and his family “happened upon the slaughter of several turtles along Tatlock Road.  Stopping for a closer look, there were skid spots on the shoulders, turtles had been lined up and run over, and there were swerve marks as well, indicating someone had intentionally sought to harm the shelled creatures.  Mom, Heather, noted this is a scene that has been repeated two or three times over the past two weeks, perhaps not as many all at once; however, evidence of turtles being killed on purpose has been clear.”  Little Aiden created a poster that is now displayed at the Clayton General Store in an attempt to make people aware of the need to slow down and avoid hitting turtles.

Many snakes also end up as roadkill.  In part, this is because they don’t just cross the roads; they actually bask on the sun-warmed asphalt, even after the sun goes down!  As a result, people often end up killing them by accident.  In many cases, however, the killing is deliberate because a lot of people have an instinctive fear or hatred of snakes.  They don’t realize that in Ontario, only the massassauga rattlesnake is venomous, and this snake isn’t even found in eastern Ontario. The massassauga rattler, like most snakes found in Ontario, is actually a timid creature, and will only attack if it feels threatened.

The decline of amphibian and reptilian populations also results from loss and degradation of habitat.  Wetlands are being drained and filled for agriculture, road construction, and housing developments.  Even temporary wetlands, which occur in the spring or fall, but then dry up, are where many frogs and salamanders breed and feed. According to the Lanark County Stewardship Council’s publication, A Place in Time:  the Natural Resources of Lanark County, the former Ramsay Township has lost as much as 80 percent of its wetlands in the last 110 years.

Despite greater awareness of the problem, this degradation of habitat continues.  Here is an anecdote from Al Seaman: “There certainly used to be lots of frogs upstream of Almonte, but about 2 weeks ago (about June 20, 2012) I happened to be up in the area of the Appleton Wetlands and only saw one lonely frog. He didn’t give the usual “ribbet”, but instead I distinctly heard him say ‘Get me out of this stinking mess’.  In addition to the dead and dying trees, large sections of the river have a mat of dead weeds and algae about three inches thick. And I am not talking about a small patch here and there – there are literally acres of the stuff. And it is almost impossible to paddle through this mess. Anyway, here is a photo of the poor little frog in the midst of this scum and crud.”

 

AppletonFrog

Lonely frog in Appleton Wetlands Photo: ©Al Seaman

The loss of natural shorelines, formerly caused by farmers who tilled their fields right down to the stream banks and allowed livestock access to the water, or cottagers who stripped native shrubs, grasses, trees and other plants growing along the shore, has deprived many frogs, turtles, and salamanders of a source of food, places to lay eggs, shelter for the newly-hatched tadpoles, and sites for hibernation.  Conservation authorities are trying to educate people about the importance of shorelines, and many municipalities stipulate appropriate setbacks for man-made structures.

 

The invasion of non-native species is another threat to the survival of our amphibians and reptiles. The common carp was introduced from Europe and Asia into the Rideau River in the 1930s. This fish disturbs the spawning areas of many aquatic insects, amphibians and fish when it uproots the plants on which it feeds. The European earthworm, which we have learned to regard as a benefactor to our gardens, is a threat to many salamanders.  The earthworms transform the leafy litter on the forest floor, an ideal habitat for salamanders, into soil which is then often taken over by non-native plants.  Cats, both feral and domestic, are yet another threat to amphibians and reptiles. Even native species, such as racoons and skunks, are a danger.  Sustained by people’s leftovers and garbage, their populations have increased to the point where they are upsetting the balance of nature in other species.

Pollution, climate change, and the unsustainable use of resources also affect the habitat of reptiles and amphibians.  Agricultural run-off, improperly treated sewage, pesticides, and improper disposal of chemicals all end up in the soil and water at some point.  Climate change, such as the drought we’ve been experiencing this year, can result in low water levels, which in turn expose hibernating animals to winter freeze or destroy the places where they breed and feed.  High water levels are also harmful because the inflow of water can negatively impact the water quality of their habitat. As for the unsustainable use of resources, we all know that every time we build a new house, dam, factory or road, pump water from the river or discharge something into it, burn fuel, grow crops or raise domestic animals, we are disturbing the habitat of the animals that used to live there.  For example, there used to be a population of two-lined salamanders below the dams in Almonte, but the new hydro station has been built over the site where they once lived. What do you think happened to them?

Why should we go out of our way to ensure the survival of all these frogs, toads, salamanders, snakes, turtles and lizards?  Because they play an essential role in our ecosystem. They clean up dead animals from our water supply, and keep insects and rodents pests under control. In turn, they serve as food for other animals higher in the food chain. Besides, don’t you want your children and grandchildren to experience the same joy you did when spotting one of these creatures in a nearby pond or forest?

What can we do? Amphibians and reptiles need a variety of habitats for food, shelter, growth and reproduction. So, encourage your elected officials to protect wetlands, forests, and waterways, and if possible, create corridors between natural areas so that animals don’t have to cross roads or built areas. Put up highway crossing signs at critical locations, or better still, plan ahead and build small underpasses (for use by wildlife) when reconstructing roads. Protect critical nesting areas from being destroyed. Drive carefully.  In the case of turtles, help them out by carrying them the rest of the way across the road, in the direction they are headed. (You might need to keep a pair of gloves handy and perhaps a shovel.) Alert other drivers, where possible, to the situation. Otherwise, leave these animals alone. Educate others about the importance of protecting these animals. (Follow Aiden Gilmour’s example!) Try to minimize your impact on the environment when burning fuel, using water, and building structures or driveways.  Make note of the wildlife you see, and report your observations to the Ontario Herpetofaunal (Amphibian & Reptile) Summary Atlas (OHS) at http://www.ontarionature.org/protect/species/herpetofaunal_atlas.php

If possible, provide a habitat in your own backyard that contains water features, rotting logs, trees, tall grasses, native plants, or piles of rocks. Thanks to the pond her husband built, Sandra Benoit-Stevenson of Blakeney has been rewarded with lots of green frogs, leopard frogs, a Fowler’s toad, a bumper crop of tadpoles that have now metamorphosed into frogs, eastern painted turtles that laid eggs on her property (the eggs have since hatched), a snapping turtle, and a giant bullfrog.

 

Blakeney Toad

Fowler’s Toad in Sandra’s yard Photo: © S. Benoit-Stevenson

 

We don’t want to leave our children and grandchildren with an impoverished environment populated by only a few token species in a county where there was once such a diversity and abundance of these creatures.  Let’s do what we can to protect and nurture the wildlife we have.  What’s good for them is good for us too!

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