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Turtles in British Columbia

While there might not be many turtles in British Columbia, there is one native freshwater turtle: the western painted turtle (a subspecies of the painted turtle). There is also a single marine turtle is native to the province and that is the luth (more commonly known as the leatherback sea turtle).

However, there have been about 11 documented sightings of the black sea turtle (also commonly known as the green turtle) in British Columbia although temperatures are too low for them to thrive. These turtles are believed to be individuals that wandered off course.

The western pond turtle used to be endemic to the province but have since become extirpated, meaning they still do exist in the world (North America), just not in British Columbia or Canada.

Sea Turtles in British Columbia

1. Pacific Leatherback

Leatherback Sea Turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) in netted material somewhere in Limon, Costa Rica
A Leatherback Sea Turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) in netted material somewhere in Limon, Costa Rica. – Source
  • Family: Dermochelyidae
  • Scientific Name: Dermochelys coriacea
  • Other Common Names: lute turtle, leathery turtle, the luth
  • Adult Size: 551 to 1982 lb (250 to 900 kg); 57 to 63 inches (145 to 160 cm)
  • Lifespan: 30 to 100 years
  • Conservation Status: Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, Endangered under the Canadian Species at Risk Act (SARA)

The leatherback is considered the largest reptile on earth. Obviously, that also makes this turtle the largest turtle. This giant can reach lengths of 2.4 meters and a mass of 900 kilograms. As you can see, this turtle is massive, as heavy as some small cars.

The leatherback is so-called because of the nature of its carapace (upper shell) and plastron (lower shell). These are covered by tough leathery skin instead of large scutes found on other marine turtles. As with other marine turtles.

The leatherback has flippers for limbs. These flippers are to help them swim around. Interesting fact, the hind flippers are joined to the tail by webbing.

Over 100 leatherbacks have been spotted in the waters of British Columbia since the 1930s.

These turtles can tolerate cold waters better than other marine turtles. Adaptations that have enabled them to be comfortable in cold waters include a network of blood vessels that act as countercurrent exchangers and a thick insulating layer of fat that protects their internals from the low temperatures.

These turtles are capable of journeying over 10,000 km each year all over the world. As they are migratory reptiles, they do not stay anywhere permanently. In fact, the oceans of the world are their habitat.

The leatherback is as aquatic as it gets for a reptile. The only time males are ever out of water is when they hatch and have to rush into the sea. Apart from that, they spend their entire lives in water. Females do come on land to nest. There are no nesting or breeding sites in British Columbia.

These turtles nest in the tropics. The Caribbeans are a popular breeding destination for the North Atlantic variants. An example is Isla Mona in Puerto Rico. They are also known to nest in French Guiana and British Malaya.

There is little information on the mating patterns of the leatherback, but their mating process is quite similar to the black sea turtle, also known as the green turtle.

These turtles reach reproductive maturity at ages 5 to 20 years. The species can lay up to 7 clutches of eggs a year.

They usually nest once every 2 or 3 years and nesting occurs from April to November. As many as 1600 gravid females may choose to nest at a single site. This can be quite an interesting sight to behold. The added numbers offer protection.

The eggs have many predators such as feral pigs, rats, birds, mongooses, monitor lizards, and even humans. The hatchlings also have many predators as they are quite helpless. These include birds of prey such as seagulls, crabs, rats, and several more.

Some of these predators such as rats and feral pigs are invasive species and can decimate entire nests. Humans collect eggs for food.

The leatherback is known to nest in people that are warm such as in the tropics. Hatchlings cannot travel into the colder waters of the temperate and subarctic regions. However, once they are a few years old, they can venture into the oceans off the coast of British Columbia.

The leatherback is immune to jellyfish stings and as such mainly feeds on jellyfish. Their throughs even have downstream pointing spines that prevent jellyfish from escaping if they have been swallowed.

They also feed on plankton, cnidarians, crustaceans, worms, and mollusks. However, the food they eat the most and primarily is jellyfish.

In Canada, the leatherback is considered to be a species at risk and is protected by the Species at Risk Act. The pacific population which includes the leatherback turtles found off the coast of British Columbia is considered to be endangered.

On the IUCN Red List, the species was considered to be critically endangered and was facing extinction until 2013. Thanks to conservative efforts, the species is now considered Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List.

Regardless, population trends show that their number is decreasing.

The leatherback faces several threats which include fisheries bycatch which is the accidental capture of these turtles in fishing gear, the harvesting of the eggs for consumption, costa developments destroying and degrading the turtle’s habitat, pollution, and climate change.

2. Pacific Black Sea Turtle

Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas agassizi) beached off the shore of Poipu, Hawaii, USA
A Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas agassizi) beached off the shore of Poipu, Hawaii, USA. – Source
  • Family: Cheloniidae
  • Scientific Name: Chelonia mydas agassizi
  • Other Names: Pacific green turtle, green sea turtle
  • Average Adult Size: 2 to 3.5 feet (61 to 107 cm), 100 to 150 pounds (45 to 68 kg)
  • Lifespan: 70 years
  • Conservation Status: Endangered on the IUCN Red List

C. mydas agassizi is one of the biggest turtles in the world.

This giant of a reptile can reach lengths of 2 to 3.5 feet (61 to 107 cm) and a mass of 100 to 150 pounds (45 to 68 kg). As you can tell this is a large turtle.

These turtles hardly ever leave the ocean as they are aquatic. Unlike freshwater turtles that bask out of the water, the Pacific Black Sea Turtle doesn’t leave the ocean.

The only time they do is when gravid females come to shore to lay eggs. You can tell they are aquatic by the shape of their limbs, which are actually flippers.

Although called the Pacific Black Sea Turtle, this turtle isn’t green in coloration. Overall the species is brown in coloration with a pale plastron.

Hatchlings and juveniles are black with a white plastron. The turtle is called green because of the color of the fat in their body which is greenish.

Males generally have longer thicker tails than females do. That is the easiest way to distinguish a male from a female. Males’ tails also have a horny tip. While Pacific Black Sea Turtles have been spotted in  British Columbia, sightings are very rare.

In fact, only 9 Pacific Black Sea Turtles have been spotted in British Columbia. And it is believed that these turtles may have wandered here by accident. However, without enough research, it is impossible to tell.

The lifespan of C. mydas agassizi is difficult to tell as they are not kept in captivity and tracing individuals is difficult as they are migratory.

However, evidence suggests that the Pacific Black Sea Turtle can lie over 50 years. The average lifespan of these giants is believed to be between 15 years to 30 years.

As already mentioned, Pacific Black Sea Turtles are aquatic. This means they live in the water permanently. As with all other turtles, C. mydas agassizi needs to bask.

They do this by floating on the surface. This is also the same way in which they sleep.

The Pacific Black Sea Turtle does come to land but only to nest. There are no nesting or breeding sites in British Columbia. These turtles nest in the tropics. The Caribbeans are a popular breeding destination. An example is Isla Culebra in Puerto Rico.

Coming on land can be a struggle as these turtles are adapted to terrestrial living. The lack of buoyancy provided by the ocean ensures that their heavy bodies compress their lungs. This causes sighs and groans from the gravid female.

These turtles come to shore to nest about three times each breeding season. Each clutch can contain anywhere between 75 to 200 eggs. Matured females mate once every two to four years.

Incubation of the eggs takes 45 to 75 days. After which the hatchlings burst out and rush to the sea. Both sexes reach maturity at about 27 to 50 years.

These gentle giants face a lot of threats as their wild population numbers are on the decline. Threats include bycatch in fishing gear as these reptiles need to breathe, being trapped underwater for too long will lead to their death.

Their eggs are also harvested in large numbers around the world. These are collected for food. Similarly, high predation of their eggs by invasive species such as feral pigs has negatively impacted the numbers.

While C. mydas agassizi is believed to not live in the waters of British Columbia, in recent times, there have been many sightings. In recent times, there have been 7 sightings.

These recent sightings have doubled the number of published occurrences for these marine turtles from the province. There have been 11 published reports for Pacific Black Sea Turtles. Without further research, it cannot be known just how common Pacific Black Sea Turtles are in the waters of British Columbia.

Pond Turtles in British Columbia

3. Western Painted Turtle

Western Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta bellii) basking on a log lat Munson Pond, Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada
A Western Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta bellii) basking on a log lat Munson Pond, Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada. – Source
  • Experience Level: Beginner
  • Family: Emydidae
  • Scientific Name: Chrysemys picta bellii
  • Adult Size: 10 inches (25 cm)
  • Lifespan: 30 years
  • Conservation Status: Endangered in British Columbia,  Special Concern in Canada

Chrysemys picta bellii has an interesting look. Parts of its body appear to have been painted, this includes its plastron which bears bright red markings, and the limbs, neck, and head which bear bright yellow markings.

The skin and carapace of this turtle are dark in coloration (olive-green). The carapace may have light yellow patterns. 

As with other aquatic turtles, the limbs of the western painted turtle are adapted for swimming. The hind feet are webbed which allows the turtle to paddle effortlessly through the water.

The front feet have claws with males having longer claws than females. Western painted turtles are large. They are the largest of all the painted turtles reaching lengths of 25 cm or almost 1 foot. Some painted turtles have even grown to be over a foot. 

Currently, the painted turtle is the only freshwater turtle species endemic to British Columbia.

However, they can be confused with the introduced species red-eared slider. As you may have guessed from the name, red-eared sliders have red markings on their ear, which gives them their common name.

You can distinguish between the two species using the red mark on the slider’s ear. Western painted turtles lack any red marking near or on the head. 

These turtles overwinter at the bottom of their habitats. They prefer aquatic biomes with soft mud bottoms as they brumate in the mud during winter.

Here their metabolism slows to almost a halt. This allows them to spend months without food and without breathing. As you may know under normal circumstances C. p. bellii will die without breathing. 

After brumation, the species proceeds to mate. Mating and breeding occur from late spring to early summer.

Females reach reproductive maturity at a plastron length of 100 to 300 mm and males reach reproductive maturity at a plastron length of 70 to 95 mm. Gravid females lay anywhere between 6 to 18 eggs with a length of about 3 cm or an inch. The nests are generally about 100 meters from the water body where they live. 

C. p. bellii are considered endangered in coastal British Columbia. The endangered status is down to the extensive wetland loss along the coast.

In addition to this, road mortality also causes significant damage to the wild population. Road mortality is especially high during nesting season when females have to crossroads to nest. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Are turtles found in British Columbia dangerous?

The turtles in the province are not dangerous unless you put them in your mouth or touch them. Turtles carry salmonella which can cause salmonella infection.

While most salmonella infections are not dangerous, they can lead to serious complications and even death to people with weakened immune systems, young children and old people. To avoid contracting salmonella infection or spreading it, always wash your hands after interacting with a turtle.

Can I keep a turtle as a pet in British Columbia?

If you wish to keep a nonnative turtle that is not at-risk as a pet (such as a sulcata tortoise, a box turtle, or the sideneck turtle), then that is allowed. There are several species you can keep as pets.

However, you cannot keep native turtle species as pets and these include painted turtles, common snapping turtles, and several others.

What should I do if I come across a turtle?

Unless the turtle is in danger, you should leave it alone. If the turtle is crossing the roads and you fear for its safety, you can move it off the road.

However, it should be moved in the direction it is already heading towards.

Conclusion

There is only a single turtle to be consistently found in British Columbia and that is the western painted turtle. The leatherback is also considered native to the province but sightings are far and few between.

There is also the black sea turtle which has had just 11 documented sightings in British Columbia. The turtles sighted are believed to have wandered off course during migrations.

In British Columbia, it is illegal to keep endemic species as pets. If you wish to keep a turtle or tortoise as a pet it has to be a nonnative species.

Regardless, turtles can be challenging pets to keep. Apart from their longevity, their care can be rather expensive.

If you have any questions, kindly leave a comment.

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