Blanding's Turtle Project
"Head-starting Blanding’s turtles increases their survival rate about 20 times over wild hatchlings. This happens for two reasons. First, the increase in size at release makes them too big to be easy prey for predators such as herons, bullfrogs, and raccoons. Second, the turtles are better able to withstand changeable environmental conditions such as heat and dryness, and they’re better able to locate water and food sources in preparation for hibernation. Overall, the head-start Blanding’s turtles have an 80 to 90 percent survival rate.”
-John Berkholtz, Senior Zookeeper
Blanding’s turtles are classified by the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife as a threatened species. Zoo New England is collaborating with the non-profit Grassroots Wildlife Conservation and Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Concord to grow this timid, semi-aquatic reptile’s numbers. Each fall, Stone Zoo hosts a group of Blanding’s turtle hatchlings, providing them a safe, stable warm environment in which to grow until their re-release into the wild in the summer. In essence, we’re giving them a “head-start” on long-term survival.
The Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Concord, Massachusetts is home to one of the larger populations of Blanding’s turtles (Emydoidea blandingii) in the Northeast. However, their numbers have dwindled by more than half since 1971, when there was an estimated 135 turtles, down to an estimated 55 turtles in 2013. The population is threatened by a host of factors, including roadkill; the region’s burgeoning populations of raccoons and skunks, which feed on turtle eggs; and the fragmentation of wetland and upland habitat.
Giving turtles a "head-start"
Zoo New England collaborates on conservation with the Blanding’s turtle research and monitoring project at Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. Since 2007, Stone Zoo Senior Zookeeper John Berkholtz has been involved with the project, which focuses on population surveys and monitoring these reptiles’ movements.
Zoo New England has also participated in the “head-start program,” which aims to boost the numbers of the local Blanding’s turtle population. Each fall, Stone Zoo takes custody of about 10 tiny hatchlings, providing them a safe, stable, and warm environment in which to grow for nine months until they are re-released back into Great Meadows’ wetlands. Over the course of the winter, the turtles typically grow to some 15 times their initial size or add to the size of 4-5 year old juveniles, making them less vulnerable to predation in the wild and able to withstand environmental changes and thus better positioned to survive long-term.
Before their release, turtles receive radio transmitters, which are glued to the top part of their shell (carapace). Transmitters emit a frequency that can be detected with a receiver and antenna. The goal is to located the turtle three times per year and to take measurements twice a year to monitor survival and growth rates.
In addition to head-starting the turtles, Zoo New England has also contributed funds for the purchase of radio transmitters, a receiver and an antenna, all of which have been used to monitor the turtles at Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge.
Buttonbush and liatris, plants found in Blanding's turtle habitats, are also grown onsite at Franklin Park Zoo and transplanted in the turtles' new habitat.
Blanding’s turtles are medium-sized, growing from 8 to 9 inches long. They are distinguished by their bright yellow chin and throat and a domed upper shell speckled with yellowish flecks or streaks. Blanding’s turtles are gentle and timid. When alarmed or threatened, they will retreat into their shell or remain submerged under water rather than attemp to bite. They eat aquatic insects, worms and tadpoles. They also hibernate under the ice from November through March. They reach sexual maturity at nearly 20 years of age and can live to an estimate of approximately 70 years.
Help Save the Blanding’s turtle
Want to help the Blanding’s turtle conservation efforts? Here are some things you can do:
- Advocating for the preservation of open space is the best way to help Blanding’s turtles and many other vulnerable wildlife species. Get involved by attending your community’s conservation commission meetings—you can find out when they meet on your city or town’s website. Play a part in your local land trust, which exists to protect land for public use. Use this map to find your nearest land trust.
- Skunks and raccoons are responsible for the vast majority of turtles’ nest destruction. Help reduce the skunk and raccoon population by not feeding them. Be inventive and skunk/raccoon-proof composting and outdoor trash bins. Report dumpsters that are not kept closed.
- Post temporary signage in the spring at turtle crossings. Usually, there are specific points where turtles cross on their way to spring nesting. Temporary signs are likely to be noticed by local drivers because they're something new to drivers’ eyes. Permanent signs become “invisible” to local drivers and therefore do less to help prevent turtle mortality on our roadways.
- Donate to Zoo New England to help support our conservation work.
- Report any sightings of Blanding’s turtles to the Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program using their rare species form found on the website.
Blanding's turtle hatchling
Two Blanding's turtles previously headstarted at Stone Zoo have been spotted in the wild, both appearing large and very healthy! One of the "alumni" was raised at the Zoo in 2008-2009, and the other in 2009-2010. These were the first sightings of these two turtles since their release.