Century-old turtle missing for 1 year found dead — but questions remain | CBC News

Warning: This story contains disturbing details and images. 

One of Ontario’s oldest snapping turtles has been found dead, capping a year of conservationists searching for signs of her survival. 

Now the unusual location where her remains were found is raising questions about how she ended up there. 

Grace, a one-eyed, 125-year-old snapping turtle who was regularly spotted by locals in the Municipality of Dysart et al until September 2021, was being monitored for years by Turtle Guardians, a conservation group.

Reported sightings of Grace were steady until the Haliburton, Ont., wetlands believed to be her regular winter hibernation zone were filled in during the winter of 2022, according to the group.

Then in early July, paddler Karol Chorostecki and his partner were floating down Koshlong Lake, nearly 15 kilometres south of Grace’s regular Haliburton wetlands, when they spotted what looked like a laundry basket.

“We paddled over and when we got closer to it, we realized that it was a turtle shell in the water, kind of upside down,” Chorostecki said. 

Other remains, including a skull, were found within a two-metre area and brought to Turtle Guardians, he said. 

Grace the Turtle and remains
A paddler found Grace’s remains. In life, she was missing one eye and so she was easily identified from her remains, according to Turtle Guardians. (Submitted by Turtle Guardians)

Turtle Guardians’ founder and CEO, Leora Berman, was convinced the remains belonged to Grace due to her distinctive features.

“Her one-eye socket was a definite tell-all,” according to a Turtle Guardians release announcing Grace’s death. “Her unusual suture lines were also an obvious match.”

The release also said the skeleton matched Grace’s measurements on file.

The bones were bleached white and lacked flesh, suggesting Grace died months before, Berman told CBC.

“I was certain it was Grace, and it was heartbreaking,” she said. 

Group believes Grace was moved before death

Because turtles hew close to their known habitat, Turtle Guardians believes somebody moved Grace to the lake once her usual domain became threatened.

“That is the only thing that makes sense,” Berman said. “Snapping turtles have been studied for 70 years at least at [the Algonquin Wildlife Research Station] … and even across other areas, the longest distance a snapping turtle has travelled on their own has been eight kilometres.”

Though Grace’s hibernation site was filled in, “that would not be a catalyst for a turtle changing an entire domain,” Berman said.

Grace the napping turtle
Grace was believed to be 125-years-old. (Submitted by Turtle Guardians)

Jeff Hathaway, a biologist who founded a nature park near Lake Simcoe and is part a large turtle conservation project, agreed it was likely Grace was moved by someone.

“[Snapping turtles are] capable of big movements,” he said, “but not quickly.”

If moved, turtles might try to return to more familiar ground, Hathaway added. 

“If you’re a turtle trying to get back and you’re caught by a sudden cold snap in the fall, that could be enough to kill you,” he said. 

Grace's remains
Leora Bermain, the founder of Turtle Guardians, is keeping Grace’s remains at her home for now, though she hopes to bury Grace at her traditional hibernation site. (Submitted by Leora Berman)

But who would move a turtle whose disappearance made headlines while not notifying the community that’s been tracking her?

It’s possible it was either someone not aware of Grace’s notoriety or who didn’t want to be known, Hathaway said. 

“It may be that somebody found Grace and innocently thought it would be useful to take her to a bigger lake,” he said. 

According to Berman, the site where Grace was found would not be a choice place to hibernate because a nearby dam means water levels would fluctuate. 

Memorial walk planned 

Berman said she’s keeping what’s left of Grace at her home and is seeking advice on what to do next from local Indigenous groups who were also aware of Grace. 

A memorial walk is planned for September, and potentially an art exhibit next year, she said. 

Berman has questioned why the fill-in work was given the go-ahead since the area was partly zoned for environmental protection.

The Municipality of Dysart et al has said its zoning bylaw does not protect against site preparation and alteration, but that work on a site alteration bylaw is underway.

That bylaw would prohibit the filling of wetlands, “which should render greater safety to the turtles,” Mayor Murray Fearrey said via email. 

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