Just more than 30 baby western pond turtles will spend their first night sleeping under the stars Wednesday.
The Oregon Zoo will release the apple-sized turtles in the Columbia River Gorge, says David Shepherdson, deputy conservation division manager at the zoo.
“We go to the edge of the pond, and put the turtles in, and they know what to do. … They go scurrying off into the dirt, disappear within a few seconds.” Shepherdson laughs.
Last month the zoo released 20 turtles. This newest release will bring that total to 51. Shepherdson says the zoo normally releases between 40 to 80 turtles each summer, based on how many hatchlings they caught the prior fall.
At this point the little turtles are the size of an apple, about the size of a three-year-old turtle. Zoo managers keep them in constant sunlight for nine months so that they will grow quickly.
“They’re large enough that they don’t get predated upon,” Shepherdson says. “They’re more likely to live to reproductive age, and hopefully they will start to increase the size of the population.”
Video courtesy of the Oregon Zoo.
The species’ range once stretched from Baja California to Puget Sound. Nearly two decades ago they were all but wiped out in Washington, with only 100 animals surviving. Now there are nearly 1,600 animals in the wild.
In Washington, the turtles are found mainly in a series of small lakes and ponds in Skamania and Klickitat counties. Biologists have reintroduced more than 1,000 turtles to the Columbia River Gorge and the Puget Sound, two areas with wetlands historically home to the species. Only one native population exists in the state today, in a pond on the eastern end of the Gorge’s National Scenic Area.
The major threat to western pond turtles is non-native bullfrogs. It’s all a numbers game, says Frank Slavens, former reptiles curator at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo.
“You get to a point where you don’t have enough adults producing enough babies to sustain the population,” Slavens says. “That’s where we were at with the western pond turtles. They breed, they have babies, but the babies go into the water and the bullfrogs eat them all. Twenty years of that, and your old turtles start to die, you don’t have any young ones coming up to replace them, and you start running out of turtles.”
That’s where the recovery effort kicks in. Oregon Zoo’s David Shepherdson says because the turtles live to be around 50 years old, it will take time to determine the project’s effectiveness to establish a breeding population.
But all appears to be going well.
Shepherdson says it’s fun releasing the babies into the wild. “You can now see a bunch of turtles we released in previous years basking on logs,” he says.
Congrats to David James for his winning submission, 'Annabella smelling the Balsam.'
Share your experiences as part of EarthFix's Public Insight Network.
Join our Public Insight Network!