50 turtles perish at Misery Bay park in spring, summer

MISERY BAY—Despite the name, Misery Bay Provincial Park is arguably one of the most beautiful places on Manitoulin, however the name does hold true in describing a recent tragedy that was uncovered this summer in the park.

“A park ecologist with the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) found 50 dead turtles this summer in Misery Bay Provincial Park,” Jacqueline Litzguz, a herpetologist (a person who studies amphibians and reptiles) with Laurentian University working on discovering the cause of death of the turtles, told The Expositor during an interview on Monday. “The park ecologist was working in the park radio tracking turtles to study their movement, habitat and behaviour, but every time the ecologist went back, more turtles were being found dead. The first death was discovered in April/May.”

Ms. Litzguz explained that 10 of the dead reptiles were adult painted turtles, while the other 40 were adult Blanding’s turtles, an MNR species at risk.

“The fact that the turtles were mostly adult or sub adult makes the occurrence even scarier,” continued Ms. Litzguz. “Turtle populations can survive if there is a threat to eggs or hatchlings, as long as there is a strong adult population. This many adult turtles dying so quickly in such a localized area is unprecedented.”

As to how many turtles are on Manitoulin, Ms. Litzguz wasn’t able to say as it has been relatively unexplored.

“But we do know that only a year ago, in 2012, the ecologist found only live turtles, now this year they are finding more dead turtles than live ones,” added Ms. Litzguz. “It is so disturbing.”

The Ontario Turtle Tally, an initiative from the Toronto Zoo, Environment Canada’s Habitat Stewardship Program and Adopt-a-Pond, encourages Ontario residents to report turtle sightings and releases its findings annually.

According to the turtle tally, 3,090 painted turtles were observed in 2012 in Ontario and only 225 Blanding’s turtles.

Though the cause is unknown at this point, Ms. Litzguz and her team, which include the MNR ecologist who found the dead turtles and Andrea Mendler, a fourth-year Laurentian forensic studies student, have their theories.

“We have two ideas of what could have caused the deaths right now,” said Ms. Litzguz. “One is a disease—the ranavirus. ‘Rana’ means frog in Latin and it is an emerging infectious disease and one of the global causes for amphibian decline. It can kill groups of turtles quickly which leads us to think it might be the cause. We are trying to figure out ways to test this theory. We have collected tissue samples from turtles in the park, but we have no fresh tissue from the dead turtles to use. We have also collected samples from frogs. If the virus is present we should find it in the frogs. We will also be trying to test bone marrow from the dead turtles’ shells, which has never been done before.”

The Laurentian herpetologist told The Expositor that the other theory is predation—the biological interaction where a predator feeds on its prey.

“It could be a new predator, but there is a problem testing this theory,” said Ms. Litzguz. “If we find teeth marks or scratches on the shell it is hard to determine if it is from a predator eating it pre or postmortem—that’s where Ms. Mendler and forensic investigation will come in. Whatever the cause, it is going to be really hard to determine, but we are going to try our best.”

“I also need to note that the ranavirus does not affect humans,” added Ms. Litzguz. “This situation is also unique in that it occurred in a location (Misery Bay Provincial Park) where none of the usual threats to turtles occur such as roads or pollution.”

The Misery Bay turtles are now hibernating for the winter, but Ms. Litzguz and her team hope to determine the cause before spring.

Robin Burridge