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 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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org, or Dr. Stephanie Koch at email@example.com.