Tag Archives: Blanding’s turtle

Back to School: A Turtle’s Head Start

It’s that time of year once again! As summer adventures come to a close, students begin shifting gears and buckling down for the year of learning ahead. For students in 22 lucky schools throughout Massachusetts, they’ll be sharing their classrooms with some tiny turtles who are looking to get a little head-start on their year too.

For Blanding’s turtles in Massachusetts, a head-start in schools can have a huge impact on their future. Biologists from the Eastern Massachusetts National Wildlife Refuge Complex and their partners across the state have discovered that allowing the hatchling turtles to grow a bit bigger and stronger in captivity for their first nine months of life can greatly improve their chances of survival in the wild.

The Blanding’s turtle is a semi-aquatic freshwater turtle that typically uses vernal pools, marshes, and slow-flowing wetlands for breeding and feeding. They can be identified by their highly-domed top shell, or carapace, and their unique bright yellow chin and throat that creates a turtley cheerful grin. Unlike some other freshwater turtle species, Blanding’s turtles cover a lot of ground, up to a mile, while searching for wetlands and suitable nesting habitat.

When Blanding’s turtle hatchlings emerge from their nests, only around 1 in 5 of the quarter-sized, defenseless (their shells are actually soft after hatching) turtles avoid becoming a snack-sized bite for lurking predators in their first year. While low survival of hatchlings is common in many turtle species, Blanding’s turtle populations are in particularly serious decline due to a number of factors. This decline is partly because the long-lived turtle doesn’t reach sexual maturity until 15-20 years of age, making it very important for turtles to reach adulthood and reproduce. This can be especially challenging for adult Blanding’s turtles who frequently cross roads and other hazardous landscapes. Currently, the species is under review to determine if federal protection under the Endangered Species Act is warranted.

A Blanding’s turtle hatchling Photo by Rob Bowers/ USFWS

A portion of the hatchlings from each nest are randomly chosen for the head-start program and the remaining turtles enter their habitat as they naturally would. Raising the turtles in captivity during their first year before releasing them into the wild helps them grow to a larger size more quickly, decreasing their chances of being predated. During head-starting, the newly-hatched turtles are fed daily and kept in warm water, allowing them to grow three to four times faster than they would in the wild. Once they’ve grown for nine months, the turtles are released back into the wild. With this extra growing time, their first-year survival rate jumps to close to 80%, with an even higher chance of survival in subsequent years as they get even larger.

Blanding’s turtles aren’t the only ones benefiting! Students play a huge role in the growth and development of the turtles, while also gaining hands-on experience with scientific techniques and wildlife management. Students also learn about the challenges facing the turtles and their own environmental impacts.

Biologists measure the length of the hatchling’s carapace. Photo by Rob Bowers/ USFWS

Brian Bastarache, Natural Resources Program Coordinator at Bristol County Agricultural High School in Dighton, MA, has been one of the leading advocates for the use of head-starting to combat declining turtle populations. Brian and his students have been raising the majority of the program’s Blanding’s turtle head-starts every year since 2009 as well as working to head-start the federally endangered northern red-bellied cooters. He thinks the experience students gain from working with the turtles is more beneficial than any worksheet.

“Real-world work is real. Classroom lessons are simply trivia without an understanding of its application, and turtles happen to be well suited for this lesson. Students also foster a positive appreciation for their own capacity to engage in their work and contribute to a larger conservation effort.”

For Bristol County Agricultural High School Alumnus Kourtnie Bouley, the message of wildlife conservation inspired her to pursue a two-year internship with the Service, where she helped protect the nests, gather the hatchlings from the field, and process the turtle hatchlings at the refuge after helping to raise them as a student.

“Helping to head-start the turtles really helped connect what we were learning in the classroom to a real life conservation strategies. The overall satisfaction of being able to make a difference in the long term survival of this species was very rewarding. My experience with the Blanding’s turtles came full circle once working with the Service.”

Currently, the largest population of Blanding’s turtles in the Northeast resides within  Eastern Massachusetts National Wildlife Refuge Complex. The population is so healthy and stable that it allows a portion of the head-started turtles to be introduced into new areas within their historic range. With numerous wetlands and upland nesting habitat, Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge in Massachusetts (also within the Eastern Massachusetts NWR Complex) provides an ideal location for reintroduction. Since the program began in 2006, over 900 Blanding’s turtle head-starts have been released to the refuge. With another good season of hatching success this summer, the one-thousandth Blanding’s turtle head-start could be released next spring.

The long-term success of this program will not be known for several years, but if successful, it could result in the third or fourth largest population of Blanding’s turtles in the northeastern United States. And to the dedicated biologists, partners, teachers, and students involved with the head-starting project, it has already provided unforgettable experiences and long-lasting memories.

The Slow Race to Save Three Turtle Species

You may have heard the timeless saying, “slow but steady wins the race,” the moral of the fable The Tortoise and the Hare. In many ways, that’s true for the biologists, researchers, conservationists, and landowners who hope to reverse the decline of three rare turtle species. A major mile marker looms ahead in 2023—when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to determine if spotted, Blanding’s, or wood turtles need to be listed under the Endangered Species Act.

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Blanding’s turtle (left) and a wood turtle (right) at the Robert Moses Nature Center in Massena, NY (Photo: Justin Dalaba/USFWS).

“While wood turtles, spotted turtles, and Blanding’s turtles are considered species at risk of needing Endangered Species Act protection, we have the opportunity to change that,” says Julie Slacum, a biologist at the Service’s Chesapeake Bay Field Office. She explains that if the threats to these at-risk species can be addressed now, they may not need to be listed in the future.

Meet the problem:

Some researchers have estimated that these turtles’ populations are on average about half of what they once were. While definitive population figures aren’t available, it’s clear these rare turtles are becoming even rarer. Why? It’s complicated.

First, they are slow to mature. They wait until they’re upwards of 20 years old (as is the case for Blanding’s turtles) to have young. Dr. Glenn Johnson, a professor of biology at SUNY Potsdam, explains how an 83 year old Blanding’s turtle was recently documented by the “dean of Blanding’s turtle research.” This impressive discovery is rare, especially because many turtles are hit by vehicles before they reach maturity.

“The older they are, the better they are at producing more babies,” Dr. Johnson says. “It’s the old females that are most important, but they’re the ones that are crossing roads many more times in their lifetime.”

Since these parents don’t have pedestrian-crossings, Dr. Johnson posts seasonal turtle crossing signs on town and county roadways in northern New York to get motorists to slow down along roads with heavy turtle traffic.

These turtles use large tracts of land, crossing roads and agricultural operations to reach their favorite spots year after year. “They develop a mental map of their landscape and they want to do the same thing more or less every year,” says Lori Erb, a herpetologist at the Mid-Atlantic Center for Herpetology and Conservation.

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Lori Erb documents and ages a spotted turtle found during a survey (Photo: Justin Dalaba/USFWS).

While roads turn their home ranges in to a dangerous maze, landscape changes for agriculture and housing further degrade and divide wetlands and natural areas.

New York State Department of Environmental Conservation biologist Mike Morgan explains what the trouble is: “It’s the dry upland where turtles nest that is also highly desirable for farmers, builders and everyone else that wants to develop land.” Over time, large farms and forests in the Northeast have become divided and re-divided into parcels, breaking up the once-connected landscape.

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Dr. Glenn Johnson (left) and Mike Morgan (right) at an old crop field that’s been restored as Blanding’s turtle nesting habitat (Photo: Justin Dalaba/USFWS).

“Just hitting a single turtle as it crosses the road or taking one home as a pet has ripple effects on their slow-growing population,” says Julie Slacum, the Service’s endangered species biologist.

Roads—as well as trails and boat launches—make spotted and wood turtles even more vulnerable for illegal collection. The species are highly desired for the illegal pet trade.

Dr. Johnson agrees that each impact adds up to one big problem. “It’s like anything—you take one brick out and another brick over here—eventually the whole system collapses,” he says. “We can’t let that happen.”

Meet the partners:

The response is under way, with partnerships and funding developing to set the stage for the future of these rare turtles.

In 2004, Mike Marchand, a New Hampshire Fish & Game biologist, attended a meeting to discuss Blanding’s turtle conservation, recognizing “immediately that this is a species that moves wide distances and requires inter-state communication and coordination.”

And so began the Northeast Blanding’s Turtle Working Group. Today, New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, the Service, U.S. Geological Survey, and several universities work together to restore habitat. So far, they’ve received a Science Support Partnership Program award (a USGS and Service partnership) and two Service-awarded competitive state wildlife grants – an accomplishment that speaks to the importance of collaboration.

Some conservation planning is farther along than others. Wood turtles are just a few years behind Blanding’s turtles in terms of what’s been accomplished, “and the spotted turtle is farther behind,” Marchand says. But that soon will be changing.

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A spotted turtle found during survey work (Photo: Justin Dalaba/USFWS).

In 2009, the Wood Turtle Working Group was formed under the Northeast Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (NEPARC), which has received a Service-awarded regional conservation needs grant and competitive state wildlife grant. “NEPARC is great in that it provides a forum for region-wide collaboration between various partners and the public regarding a number of species, not just turtles,” says Noelle Rayman-Metcalf from the Service’s New York Field Office who is also on the NEPARC steering committee.

Benefiting both turtles and people

When it comes down to it, the same goal is shared across their range: to avoid the need to list these three species under the Endangered Species Act. The turtles’ ranges expand into the Midwest and southern Canada, with the spotted turtle found as far south as Florida. With around 75% of remaining wetlands being privately owned, private landowners have a lot of influence over the larger effort.

There are two federal programs in particular that offer technical and monetary assistance to private landowners. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife program works with landowners to protect and restore wetlands, as well as streams and grasslands, for the greater benefit of the people and wildlife that live on them. Many of these restoration projects provide benefits to Blanding’s, spotted, and wood turtles, where they occur. In New York State alone, the Partners program has protected, restored and enhanced over 15,000 acres of wetlands and partnered with over 675 landowners and 60 partners.

Another way that landowners and wildlife are benefiting from proactive conservation measures is through the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) ongoing Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW) initiative. Just this year, spotted, Blanding’s, and wood turtles were added to the list of target species for the WLFW.

So how exactly does WLFW work? People who have rare turtles in their yards, pastures, or crop fields receive assistance to improve or expand habitat for turtles. This might include cover crop planting to better deal with high rain events and nutrient containment, or replanting riparian buffers and wetlands to improve water quality.

For a private landowner in Dutchess County, prescribed grazing with livestock such as goats and cows is a more eco-friendly way to maintain encroaching shrubs and weeds while providing ideal habitat for nesting turtles. The landowner, who has participated with NRCS since 2005 to restore 9 acres of habitat, was equally as happy with the work as the turtles.

“I would encourage people [private landowers] to get involved as I did,” the landowner said. An added benefit for him was that “the project was able to clear a substantial amount of invasive [plant] species from the area,” which are a threat to both agriculture and turtles. This has also turned into a valuable educational experience for him and his daughter, as biologists provided updates on the turtles and progress being made.

Spotted turtles in particular seem to be benefiting. Jason Tesauro, the consulting biologist for this project, says they’ve documented spotted turtle nests in areas that were completely forested prior to the restoration work.

But it’s more than just turtles that benefit, says herpetologist Lori Erb. “You can think of a lot of these turtle species as umbrella species – when you’re protecting their habitat, you’re protecting all of the other species that use the area,” Erb says. From frogs and salamanders to other charismatic species like New England cottontail, wood duck, American woodcock, brook trout, bobcat, even moose, and (depending on the area) the list goes on.

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A Blanding’s turtle nesting site in St. Lawrence County, New York (Photo: Justin Dalaba/USFWS).

At a restored Blanding’s turtle nesting site in St. Lawrence County, New York, it’s the grasshopper sparrow that’s benefiting. DEC biologist Mike Morgan pauses the conversation as he excitedly listens to the sparrow, later explaining that we’re witnessing “a species of real concern here in New York State right now.” For sites like this, “there are a lot of initiatives that all come together and overlap in the same spot, so it’s a great opportunity to work with the Service and other partners,” he says.

It’s a slow race to 2023, but the collaborative work between agencies and private landowners to secure and restore habitat for these turtle species is what’s needed to determine the future of these rare turtle species.

The 2nd grade class at Reilly Elementary School visits the refuge to release the Blanding's turtles they raised. (Photo credit: Jared Green.)

Oh, the Places They’ll Go! Students’ Turtles “Graduate” to the Great Outdoors

Reading, writing, arithmetic and…turtles! Jared Green, our Biological Science Technician at Eastern Massachusetts National Wildlife Refuge Complex, reports that the refuge and students from Peter W. Reilly Elementary School in Lowell, Massachusetts, concluded a successful partnership earlier this summer when they released into the wild a pair of Blanding’s turtles raised by the students in their classroom. And now the school is awaiting a new pair of Blanding’s turtle hatchlings to raise in the classroom this school year!

The 2nd grade class at Reilly Elementary School visits the refuge to release the Blanding's turtles they raised. (Photo credit: Jared Green.)

The 2nd grade class visited the refuge in June to release the Blanding’s turtles they raised in their classroom. (Photo credit: J. Green/USFWS.)

The Blanding’s turtle is a medium-sized, semi-aquatic freshwater turtle and a threatened species in Massachusetts. The turtles travel seasonally over land and require a variety of wetland habitats. They are threatened by wetland loss and habitat fragmentation due to development.

Two of the largest populations of Blanding’s turtles in the northeast exist at refuges within the Eastern Massachusetts National Wildlife Refuge Complex, comprised of eight ecologically diverse refuges situated along a migratory corridor for birds and other wildlife. You can access a brochure for the refuge complex here.

Biologists are attempting to establish a population of Blanding’s turtles within the complex, which offers protection from habitat loss and road mortality, two of the main threats faced by the species.

Raising the turtles in captivity during their first year (“head-starting”) before releasing them into the wild increases their chances of survival by helping them grow to a larger size more quickly, decreasing their chances of predation. During head-starting, the newly-hatched turtles are fed and kept in warm water, allowing them to grow three to four times faster than they would in the wild.

That’s where the second grade students from Reilly Elementary School came in.

A young Blanding's turtle in the head-start program is ready to be released into the wild. (Photo credit: Jared Green.)

A young Blanding’s turtle from the head-start program is ready to be released into the wild. (Photo credit: K. Buhlmann/Savannah River Ecology Laboratory.)

Jared reached out to a teacher at Reilly Elementary School, one of the schools involved in the urban education program run by the refuge complex.

Teacher Alison Bilodeau and her class offered to head-start a pair of Blanding’s turtle hatchlings during the 2014-15 school year. Jared provided an educational presentation for the class at the beginning of the year to help the second graders understand why they were raising the turtles, and the class was off and running.

Jared reports that the students had a lot of fun raising the turtles in their classroom.

Then in June, the students traveled to Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge to release their turtles. The students were very enthusiastic about being on the refuge, Jared says, and had remembered quite a bit from the presentation he gave at the start of the school year.

Since the students at Reilly Elementary School did such a great job raising their turtle hatchlings, Jared will be bringing them another pair in September to head-start during the 2015-16 school year. He also plans to reach out to other schools involved in the urban education program to see if they’d like to raise Blanding’s turtle hatchlings in their classrooms.

Biological Technician Jared Green releases a Blanding's turtle raised in the head-strart program. (Photo credit: Jared Green.)

Biological Technician Jared Green releases a Blanding’s turtle raised in the head-start program. (Photo credit: K. Buhlmann/Savannah River Ecology Laboratory.)

Jared reports that the Blanding’s turtle head-start project reached a milestone during another release this past spring, when refuge staff released their 500th Blanding’s head-start raised turtle to the refuge since the project began in 2006. Including the non-head-started hatchlings that have been released at the site, over 1,000 Blanding’s turtles have now been released to the Assabet River refuge.

For the students from Reilly Elementary School, many of whom live in urban areas, the head-start program presents an exciting opportunity to connect with nature in new and rewarding ways. The program is important not just for the turtles, but for the youth who guide them on their journey from the classroom to the great outdoors.

If you would like more information on the Blanding’s turtle head-start project, contact Jared_Green at jared_green@fws.gov, or Dr. Stephanie Koch at stephanie_koch@fws.gov.