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A Year of Road Ecology Research

You may have seen Georgian Bay Mnidoo Gamii Biosphere (GBB) staff biking several different roads in multiple townships last year. All this work was done within Anishinaabek territory on the following roadways: Conservation Drive, Nobel Road, Highway 559, 12 Mile Bay Road, Healey Lake Road, and Skerryvore Community Road. Our staff are not training for a race! We are conducting ecological surveys to help us understand the impacts that roads have on wildlife.

At the beginning of the Maamwi Anjiakiziwin initiative, the impact of roads on wildlife was identified as an area of concern to research. Support from Maamwi Anjiakiziwin and Ganawenim Meshkiki (GMI) has also been critical to reaching and furthering our collective understanding of species and threat mitigation along the coast. 

To try and understand what wildlife is being hit on the road, and where, we decided to bike target roads and count the number of animals we see. Roads represent a major threat for our Species at Risk in the Biosphere, especially for reptiles. For this reason, we focused our efforts on counting reptiles during our surveys. We have conducted road surveys since 2020, which has allowed us to amass a large dataset to better understand how reptiles interact with roads in the Biosphere and encourage local Townships to take action where areas are found to most negatively impact reptiles.

Why Did the Reptile Cross the Road?

Reptiles may cross roads for many reasons.

Firstly, reptiles are ectotherms (cold-blooded). That means that they have to warm themselves up using their environment. Since roads are asphalt, they warm up much faster than the surrounding environment. During our surveys, we found that the road was, on average, 5͒C warmer than the surrounding air. This means that reptiles may bask on roads to try and increase their body temperature, putting them at risk of being hit on the road.

Some reptiles also have large home ranges, which may be intersected by several roads. A reptile requires an overwintering site, foraging habitat, nesting/gestation sites, and more. These are often spread out around the landscape, meaning that they often must cross roads to fulfill their biological processes. 

Lastly, many reptiles – especially turtles – will use the edges of roads as nesting habitat. Road shoulders are often exposed to full sun, making them warm enough to incubate eggs. They also have soft gravel in the shoulders, which is an ideal nesting substrate for turtles and large-bodied snakes like Foxsnakes. 

2022 Road Survey Efforts

Our road surveys began in May, and each road was biked biweekly until October. In total, we biked over 6,600kms in 2022! Field biologists spent 386 hours and 38 minutes biking these routes, rain or shine. All of these surveys could have been done without the help of some volunteers and partners who assisted us.

In total,  a staggering 589 observations of reptiles on roads during our surveys in 2022. These observations were comprised of 16 species of reptiles, 8 of which are classified as Species at Risk. 

  • Blanding’s Turtle (Threatened)
  • Dekay’s Brownsnake
  • Eastern Foxsnake (Threatened)
  • Eastern Gartersnake
  • Eastern Hog-nosed Snake (Threatened)
  • Eastern Milksnake 
  • Eastern Musk Turtle (Special concern)
  • Eastern Ribbonsnake (Special concern)
  • Five-lined Skink (Special concern)
  • Massasauga Rattlesnake (Threatened)
  • Midland Painted Turtle
  • Northern Watersnake
  • Red-Bellied Snake
  • Ring-necked Snake
  • Smooth Greensnake
  • Snapping Turtle (Special concern)

The Big Picture

These observations can give us many useful insights as to how reptiles are interacting with roads.

By observing which species of reptiles are occurring where, we can predict which areas of the Biosphere may have a high diversity of reptiles, and better understand the distribution of individual species. This information can be used to identify critical habitat for species at risk and make more informed land use decisions.

We can also compare roads to understand which roads have higher rates of reptile mortality. For example, Conservation Drive had nearly twice as many reptile observations per kilometer than the other road sections that were surveyed. This information helps us decide which roads should be prioritized for mitigation measures. 

We can go one step further and analyze which sections of each road have reptile observation hotspots. Hotspots are areas where more reptiles were observed compared to the rest of the road. By identifying hotspots, we can recommend where to install mitigation measures such as wildlife crossing signs, wildlife fencing, and ecopassages.

Project Highlight:  Skerryvore Road Study Complete

This year, Jenna Kentel – a master’s student from the Litzgus Lab at Laurentian University – completed a two-year study of road ecology on Skerryvore Community Road. 

This year, Jenna Kentel – a master’s student from the Litzgus Lab at Laurentian University – completed a two-year road ecology study on Skerryvore Community Road. This study was made possible through the partnerships between the Township of the Archipelago (TOA), GBB, and Shawanaga First Nation to explore and implement strategies during construction to reduce road threats for turtles. The study evaluated a new and cost-effective strategy to deter female turtles from using risky roadside habitats for nesting, thereby encouraging their use of natural habitat to lay their eggs. The strategy hardened road embankments at wetland crossings with rip-rap (large angular rocks) and tar-and-chip pavement to cover exposed gravel that females use for nesting. 

The study found that female turtles did not nest in the rip-rap, but continued to nest in open road shoulders further down the road, including areas with the non-compact pavement. Interestingly, the study found that turtles may continue to nest on road shoulders because there is limited natural nesting habitat available to females in the rock barren surrounding the road. Overall, the study concluded that this strategy should not be applied on road shoulders to deter turtles without further research, especially in areas with limited natural nesting habitat. This study highlighted the importance of collaborative efforts during all stages of project planning, execution, monitoring, and evaluation to make well-informed decisions on best management practices for vulnerable species.

Stay tuned for more information about this project!

Project Highlight:  Eastern Foxsnake Fence Study

After identifying hotspots on Conservation Drive, GBB and the Township of Carling (TOC) partnered to install wildlife fencing and ecopassages to reduce wildlife mortality on the road. Discussions with public works and First Nations communities identified significant drawbacks to the standard vertical wildlife fencing designs. With this in mind, GBB and the TOC agreed to pilot an innovative fencing design and study its efficacy in reducing road mortality, as well as its compatibility with road maintenance and traditional land use.

This new fence design is concave, which could be useful in preventing large-bodied snakes like the threatened Eastern Foxsnake from climbing over. Currently, provincial guidelines suggest 2m of vertical fencing to prevent Foxsnakes from crossing. This new design, however, may be able to stop the snakes at just 1.2m because of its concave shape. In partnership with Dr. Jacqueline Litzgus and Laurentian University, a graduate student will be monitoring the fence and conducting behavioral trials with snakes to evaluate this new fencing design. This research will help us understand whether the new design can be adapted and applied in areas throughout the Eastern Foxsnake’s range. 

How You Can Help!

Community members can help reduce the risk of road mortality on our reptile population! 

  1. Always obey the speed limit and keep your eyes open between May and October, when reptiles are likely to be on the roads.
  1. If it is safe to do so, you can help reptiles across the road. Read our guide for helping turtles on roads. Snakes and skinks can be gently encouraged along with a snake hook or a stick – just be mindful of our Massasauga Rattlesnakes, which may try to bite out of fear. You might find this video useful.
  1. You can submit your own observations of wildlife on roads to our iNaturalist project. We use these submissions to further expand the dataset that we gather during road surveys! 
  1. Become a Biosphere Member or consider a donation. Your support will help make our charity’s conservation work possible. Thank you for making a difference!

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