Study slowly revealing the secret world of our painted turtles

How can you not love this face? A close up of a painted turtle, one of the most beloved creatures in the Revelstoke area. Please click on the image to see an enlargement. Nicole Schiller photo courtesy of BC Hydro

By David F. Rooney

A two-year study supported by BC Hydro is slowly but surely revealing the secret world of the western painted turtle.

“Turtles have been around for 220 million years so they’re doing something right,” says Nicole Schiller, a Thompson Rivers University Master’s candidate whose project is uncovering more information about the aquatic reptiles — BC’s only freshwater turtle — which can attain 50-year life spans.

Using a variety of different devices, turtles are gently trapped then measured, photographed and mated with small transmitters so she and her field assistants can track their movements.

“Our 2011 priorities include better estimates of their numbers and sex ratio,” Schiller said at a fascinating and well-attended lunch-hour open house at the Community Centre on Thursday. “We’ll also be attaching more transmitters, with an emphasis on males and juveniles, and identifying nesting sites in the Drawdown Zone.”

In 2010, Schiller and her field assistants recorded 1,330 turtle sightings and captured 133 turtles. Fifty-four were females (they are larger than the males) and only three were males, 19 were juveniles and 57 were neonates (newly hatched baby turtles). Photos were taken of each animals’s scute pattern (scutes are the bony plates that comprise the top of the turtle’s armour) and the colourful pattern of their carapace. Sixty-nine of them were marked  and six new nesting sites were identified. So far this year, 26 turtles have been captured.

Although threatened by human development, including concerns that runoff from the parking lots at Revelstoke Mountain Resort and a proposed golf course by Williamson’s Lake, these creatures are remarkably adaptable.

“Painted turtles are pretty hardy animals,” Schiller said. “You can find them in ponds fouled b y manure and swimming in junkyard swamps where they climb on pieces of scrap metal to bask.”

They can also be real travellers. One female who was fitted with a transmitter last year was found to have travelled from Montana Slough to a location across the river, then down to Cartier Bay and Nine Mile.

“We’re finding that the turtles are moving around a lot more since water levels were raised (in the Columbia River),” Schiller said.

Nicole Schiller talks with members of an interested crowd about her research into the the Western Painted Turtle population in this region. Her two-year research project, which will help her earn a Master's degree, is sponsored by BC Hydro. David F. Rooney photo