Dillon Lorraine might never have hatched without the Friends of Keji, a volunteer association which supports Kejimkujik National Park in its day-to-day endeavours, most notably in the conservation of its resident wildlife.
Together these organizations coordinate their efforts on the endangered Blanding’s turtle, occurring within the park and a few neighbouring watersheds. Last I heard from biologist Jeffie McNeil of the Mersey Tobeatic Research Institute (MTRI), this population of fleeting reptiles numbered between 400-500 in all, Dillon Lorraine among them, their decline the result of habitat loss, poaching, road collisions and predation over decades.
A great many exceptional organizations are meeting these threats on all fronts, combating poaching with education, road collisions with signage and habitat loss with research and thoughtful stewardship, but the Friends of Keji have thrown themselves on the most untimely of these population pressures within park borders – the predation of turtle eggs before they’ve even hatched.
Raccoons are the worst of these early predators, explained Friends of Keji chair Norm Green. A Blanding’s turtle’s journey to adulthood is treacherous enough, so with a population this preciously small, additional prenatal deaths could not be afforded.
In the mid 1990s this small army of volunteers took upon themselves a sizeable responsibility, spanning several nights each and every summer. With flashlights in hand and the aid of rubber boots, they patrol the lakesides supporting these enterprising turtles, hoping to catch them in the act of laying eggs.
The digging, laying, burying and concealing of any given nest takes female turtles several hours, concluding around midnight or in the wee hours of the morning, and if volunteers are not in attendance to mark the nest’s exact location, it becomes almost invisible to the human eye. But not, problematically, to that of the aforementioned raccoon.
It’s at the end of those sleepless nights that Friends of Keji volunteers make their contribution to the recovery of this species, covering these marked nests with a steel cage so as to stave off predators. There they remain until the proceeding fall, when they’re checked daily for the arrival of hatchlings. In this way, said Norm, his association is tipping the balance in favour of these beleaguered reptiles.
It was Acadia University professor Dr Tom Herman, now retired, who witnessed the laying of Dillon Lorraine in summer of 1998, mothered by a female named Suzie. Himself a long time patron of the Blanding’s turtle, Tom personally set the cage which would ensure Dillon’s birth come fall, when she’d be released by Jeffie McNeil alongside ten surviving siblings, her shell marked for future reference.
The years lumbered by as Dillon Lorraine survived the trials of youth. Researchers found her on three separate occasions, in 2001, 2002 and 2003, one of these encounters earning her the name Dillon. The sex of juvenile turtles is impossible to tell, hence the masculine moniker.
It wasn’t until 2015 that Norm met this particular turtle in person, brought to his attention by campers in Kejimkujik. He didn’t know she’d already been named, so he dubbed her Lorraine, in honour of a camper’s mother. After the fact, he learned of the duplication and settled the matter by christening her Dillon Lorraine.
When it comes to the conservation of long-lived species such as the Blanding’s turtle, believed to reach 80-100 years of age, every move matters. The loss of even a single adult turtle to traffic is a tragedy not easily recovered, and the survival of a new female into adulthood is a triumph only enjoyed every couple of years. It takes several scientific careers to answer even basic questions about this species and conservation efforts, no matter how impassioned, can last decades before showing meaningful results. It’s for all these reasons that Dillon Lorraine is so very important.
It was believed this species reached sexual maturity between the ages of 20-25, which is why Dillon’s nesting in the summer of 2017, at the tender age of 19, was so remarkable. On June 19 she laid seven eggs, all of which hatched this fall – the first time a Blanding’s turtle born from a protective cage it known to have built a nest of her very own.
Without the efforts of the Friends of Keji, it’s more than likely Dillon Lorraine’s egg would have been pried open by a hungry raccoon back in 1998. Her survival to adulthood is probably due to the protections afforded her by Kejimkujik National Park, leading finally to her seven children, each a minor miracle in an increasingly hostile region. The fruits of conservation two decades old have finally been tasted, with Dillon Lorraine at their centre.
But she wasn’t the only maturing female to join the roster this year, accompanied by two other rookies aged 19 and 20. Their recruitment in such unusual numbers this year speaks volumes to the efforts of twenty years previous, and has encouraged a hard-earned optimism for seasons to come. Dillon’s own mother, Suzie, nested this year as well, doing her part for repopulation.
The day is far from won, but Dillon Lorraine embodies the potential of volunteer hours, charitable dollars, habitat stewardship and good science to encourage a species’ recovery, and perhaps, in time, even prevent its extinction.
Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, author, and writer active across the Maritimes. This article was originally published with the Chronicle Herald.