Gregory Bulte says turtles can vanish for years, only to resurface
Turtles are more flexible than humans think — so don't give up hope just yet on Grace, the rural Ontario snapper that hasn't been spotted by its worried devotees in over a year, an Ottawa biologist says.
Grace, an old, one-eyed snapping turtle who was regularly spotted by locals in Haliburton, Ont., until September 2021, is feared dead by Turtle Guardians, a conservation group that's coordinated efforts to monitor and safely ferry Grace over busy roads lest she get run down by traffic.
Leora Berman, the group's founder, has said reported sightings of Grace were steady until the wetlands believed to be her regular winter hibernation zone were filled in during the winter of 2022.
She was a no-show in all of 2022, Berman added.
But Gregory Bulte, a biologist who studies turtles and teaches at Carleton University, said that while Grace's altered habitat is worrying, some turtles vanish for years — only to surface again.
"When you don't see them, oftentimes you might wonder, 'Well what happened? That turtle died.' And I mean, it's entirely possible," Bulte said Saturday from his research post at Opinicon Lake, Ont., where he catches and studies northern map turtles (named so because "their back looks like a geographical map").
"But having studied the same group of turtles for 20 years, I also know that it's not rare for turtles to just not be captured for several years, sometime 10, 15 years, and then all of a sudden captured at the exact same spot where we captured it 10, 12 years ago."
It could take a couple years for Grace to return and be seen, he added.
Tracker still in hand 'in case we do find her'
Berman, however, has not changed her outlook.
"I have very little hope," she said Sunday. "Because she's so old and seasoned and her movements are so regular…The fact that we've had multiple reports annually and two landowners have seen Grace at their docks every year for 40 years and they haven't seen her since the wetland was filled.
"But we're not going to give up."
In fact, Turtle Guardians still has the tracker it hastily applied for from Ontario's Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry once Grace was feared missing in early 2022, Berman said.
"In case we do find her," she said, adding that Turtle Guardians is still asking community members to keep an eye out for her this summer.
"There is no doubt that individual turtles have their own habits," Bulte said in response.
"If they have seen her every year for many years, then perhaps she is gone because her hangout spot is no longer around.
"But that does not mean she is dead."
Grace is cherished due in part to her age, which is estimated to be as high as 125 years old judging by the length of her carapace or shell: about 38 centimetres.
Bulte said it's difficult to determine a turtle's age by their external features because their growth grinds to a halt once they reach the age of sexual maturity.
"They grow…all their life, but it could be a millimetre every couple years," he said.
Berman said Turtle Guardians' estimate of Grace's age was informed by a study conducted of turtles in Algonquin Provincial Park.
No matter how you square it, though, "there's no doubt that this is an old turtle," Bulte said.
He held his fingers to form a hole about the size of a toonie.
"They start this big and then they turn into these giant freshwater monsters — gentle monsters though," he said.
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