Wetlands and Reptiles Project

The Wetlands and Reptiles Project (WRP) has been growing since 2008, thanks to collaborations with some wonderful people and organizations, and to the good humour and enthusiasm of many hard-working students and field technicians. The WRP provides an umbrella for much of our current conservation research and applied conservation work, and for training the next generation of conservation scientists.

When the project began, the initial goal was long-term monitoring of threatened populations of turtles and snakes, targeting several sites in southern Ontario. Outcomes related to this goal include development of novel genetic markers (15, 16) used to characterize the spatial genetic structure of endangered Ontario turtles (18, 19), and development of environmental DNA primers for native and invasive turtle species (24).

To investigate habitat use in more detail, we began to also conduct radio-telemetry on turtles and large snakes, and we use road-mortality surveys to assess the impacts of roads on herptile communities. Incorporating data from a network of >900 cover boards established in collaboration with Ontario Parks and Drs. Steve and Darlene Hecnar (Lakehead University), we are also testing hypotheses about the response of amphibian and reptile communities to habitat modification in a Protected Area. Scaling these questions up to the landscape scale, our collaborator Dr. James Paterson is leading research using the Ontario Nature Reptile and Amphibian Atlas (a community science database, a.k.a. citizen science) to understand the independent and interactive effects of habitat loss and increased road density on local extinctions across southern Ontario.

Tracking population trends over time is especially exciting for us because we can use the data to test hypotheses about the impacts of rapid environmental shifts on population dynamics. Examples of threats we are particularly interested include invasive species (55), subsidized predator populations (39), road mortality (41, 45, 49), pollution (50, 51), and wildlife pathogens (54, 58). Research conducted on the Wetlands and Reptiles Project has directly informed management of target populations and their habitats, and assessment of species’ conservation status by the Committee On The Status of Endangered Wildlife In Canada.

From the perspective of applied conservation science, we work to maximize recruitment to threatened turtle populations at specific sites where nest depredation is so high that most nests do not survive to hatch. We use ex situ incubation and head-starting methods to increase juvenile survival rates, and we also conduct ongoing evaluation of the effectiveness of these conservation tools (35). This work includes developing a marking method for hatchling freshwater turtles that allows us to recognize turtles released from our incubation program (10). We collaborate with the Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre on a long-term experiment to test whether turtles that have been “head-started” (grown to a larger size before release) demonstrate different survivorship than wild-hatched individuals (47). And we tested whether a commonly used fitness proxy provides accurate information about long-term fitness (20). By understanding how different conservation interventions and tools impact target populations, we can directly inform recovery of threatened species, both in Canada and around the world.

We are increasingly integrating behavioural ecology approaches into the WRP. Examples include a study of the use of olfactory cues in social behavior of hatchling turtles (26), a study of egg-to-egg communication among turtle embryos (53), a study of reptile habitat selection in wetlands invaded by European Common Reed (62), and a study of nocturnal behaviour in spotted and Blanding’s turtles (66).

Finally, although the WRP began with a focus on particular species, these species’ habitats are affected by human impacts on the surrounding landscape. Therefore, we recently began to take a whole-ecosystem approach to understand how protected wetlands are impacted by neighbouring agricultural activity, or by invasive species control measures. This work includes research into the fate and persistence of herbicides used to control invasive European Common Reed in wetlands (55), and a collaborative study investigating how agri-chemicals move through the abiotic environment and into the trophic web (51).

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