Blanding’s Turtle Headstarting Program 

The Blanding’s turtle, a long-lived species with a life span of up to 80 years, is listed as a threatened species both provincially and nationally due to threats such as predation and habitat loss. Blanding’s turtles have inhabited the Rouge Valley for thousands of years; however, prior to the initiation of the Toronto Zoo’s headstarting program, Blanding’s turtles were facing almost imminent local extinction in this area, with as few as six individuals remaining. After over a decade of monitoring turtles what is now the Rouge National Urban Park (RNUP), the Toronto Zoo’s Adopt-A-Pond Wetland Conservation Program began to supplement the Park's declining Blanding’s turtle population with headstarted juveniles as part of a comprehensive approach to species recovery, which also included habitat creation, academic research, stewardship initiatives, outreach and education efforts to save this species from local extinction. With funding from Parks Canada, and project support from the Toronto Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF), Adopt-A-Pond staff were able to release the first group of headstart turtles into the wilds of RNUP in 2014. As of the end of 2023, 669 Blanding’s turtles have since been released, of which 429 were released as two-year-old headstarts and 240 were released as hatchlings. Two clutches, totaling 16 hatchlings were collected from remnant adults within RNUP, which is essential in preserving the local genetics of this species. 

The headstart turtle eggs are collected under permit from stable source populations in Ontario, from at-risk nest sites where eggs would otherwise not survive to hatching. This includes nests from construction sites and tilled farm fields. The eggs are incubated and hatched here at the Toronto Zoo, and you can go visit them on habitat in the Americas Pavillion. When the Blanding's turtle first hatches, they are very soft and about the size of a Loonie, making them an easy meal for any predator that can fit the tiny turtle in its mouth. The Toronto Zoo raises the hatchling in a controlled environment for two years before they are released back into the wild. At this point their shells are much harder and they are large enough to evade most predators (like raccoons, skunks, foxes, coyotes, and crows), thereby giving them a headstart in life! 

Toronto zoo staff member holds turtle in their hand while they use a measuring device to measure the size of the turtle

Photo: An Adopt-A-Pond staff member taking final morphological measurements of one Blanding’s turtle headstart prior to release.

Our goal is to release approximately 50 young Blanding’s turtles back into the wild each spring and to track the movement and survival status of the population that has been released. After being released we continue to monitor the turtles as they interact with their new environment and undergo important milestones such as migration and hibernation, via radio telemetry. The information gained from monitoring these turtles will help to inform us about their habitat requirements and help us to understand what we can do to ensure they are continually provided with suitable areas to live.  

Long-term partnerships have greatly enhanced Blanding’s turtle monitoring and headstart by providing funding, permits and in-kind contributions to conduct research on Blanding’s turtles in the Rouge Valley. Some partnerships that have made this project possible include Parks Canada, the MNRF, the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation, and Parks, Georgian Bay Biosphere, Magnetawan First Nation, Shawanaga First Nation, TRCA, and Ontario Power Generation who ensure ongoing success. As well The University of Toronto (Scarborough) and Laurentian University have supported multiple graduate students in assisting with this long-term project. Information gained through these student’s work has informed alterations to our methods to increase the likelihood that the project ultimately leads to a sustainable population of Blanding's turtles in this area.  

Blanding’s turtles are an excellent species upon which to model wetland protection initiatives. Blanding’s turtles use a variety of different wetland habitats throughout their life cycle, including swamps, marshes, ponds, vernal pools and connecting travel corridors like ravines and rivers. Protecting Blanding’s turtles and their habitat goes a long way to benefit other native turtles, birds, fish, and amphibians that use the same wetland homes. Together, we can focus on saving habitat for one species to save an entire ecosystem! 



Parks Canada
Ontario Power Generation
Ontario Government
Toronto and Region Conservation Authority
Magnetawan First Nation Lands & Resources
Georgian Bay Biosphere
Shawanaga First Nation Lands & Resources
University of Toronto Scarborough
Laurentian University