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ON Press: Soft Heart For Softshell

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Posted by: W von Papinešu at Mon Mar 7 06:38:17 2005  [ Report Abuse ] [ Email Message ] [ Show All Posts by W von Papinešu ]  

LONDON FREE PRESS (Ontario) 07 March 05 Soft Heart For Softshell - A Biologist Writes A Guide To Protect A Species Of Turtle That Has Fascinated Him Since He Was 11. (Peter Geigen-Miller)
A life-long love of turtles has made Scott Gillingwater a passionate champion of a Thames River species that teeters on the brink of oblivion.
Gillingwater, a species-at-risk biologist with the Upper Thames River Conservation Authority, has taken a lead role in the effort to preserve tiny pockets of spiny softshell turtles found in the Thames, the Sydenham River and a few other waterways in southern Ontario and southern Quebec.
His advocacy includes a just-published stewardship guide aimed at showing landowners and others how to preserve the unusual turtle by protecting and restoring habitat and improving water quality.
The spiny softshell is classified as threatened by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, a federal body.
That classification puts the turtle one step away from endangered status, Gillingwater says, adding, "Endangered means it is one step away from being extinct."
The number of spiny softshells living in pockets along the Thames is estimated at anywhere from 600 to 1,000.
Threats to the small and vulnerable population are numerous and dire -- chemical pollution, degradation of water by animal and human waste, thermal pollution from factories and power plants and damage to nesting sites by erosion and sediment.
An even larger danger is the loss of habitat from urban growth and industrial and agricultural activities.
Habitat loss has severely limited sites where spiny softshells can nest and safely spend the winter, says Gillingwater.
Predators also take a huge toll, especially on eggs and vulnerable young turtles. Major predators include the raccoon, coyote, striped skunk and red fox.
The guide shows how all these factors have combined to devastate the softshell population.
"We try to show that it's not just one thing and not just one person's responsibility," says Gillingwater. "We are all part of the problem and we are all part of the solution."
Gillingwater confesses to a long-time fascination with turtles dating to when he was growing up in Oxford County.
His first exposure to the spiny softshell came in 1985 at age 11 when he saw a photograph of one in a magazine.
"It amazed me so much," he remembers. "After seeing that picture, I had to know anything and everything about the species."
He read every book he could and bugged his parents to drive him to libraries in other communities to find out more.
By 19, Gillingwater had a position working with softshell turtles on the Sydenham River.
Now he's a species-at-risk biologist working on preserving at-risk species of all kinds. He's also chairperson of the Ontario Spiny Softshell Turtle Recovery Team and participates in recovery efforts for other species.
The multi-disciplinary recovery team works to help the turtle population grow to sustainable levels.
Gillingwater sees signs the team's efforts are paying off. The educational effort has reached many thousands of people and sparked an interest in recovery efforts, he says.
Even better, researchers began noticing young turtles around their study sites in 1999 after spotting none during the previous six years.
Young turtles have continued to show up in subsequent years, a sign that efforts to improve habitat and protect nests along the river are working.
"We can see change and we can see definite results," says Gillingwater. "I definitely have some optimism."
About The Guide
Purpose: To promote protection of the spiny softshell , a threatened species found in the Thames and Sydenham rivers.
Contents: Information about the spiny softshell, where it is found in Canada, threats to its survival, an identification guide for Ontario turtles, stewardship advice for land owners and others.
Money: The federal government provided financial support through the Habitat Stewardship Program for Species at Risk. The McIlwraith Field Naturalists of London and the Ontario Trillium Foundation have provided financial support for spiny softshell research and awareness.
More information: For more on the guide and how to obtain it, contact Scott Gillingwater at the Upper Thames River Conservation Authority, 451-2800, ext. 236. E-mail:
Soft Heart For Softshell


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