Saving Endangered Turtles in the Pacific Northwest

by Oregon Zoo Foundation
Vetted
Turtle Conservation Lab
Turtle Conservation Lab

They survived the dinosaurs, but turtles worldwide are facing a modern extinction crisis, with half of all species at risk of disappearing.

Once common from Baja California to Puget Sound, the small, long-lived western pond turtle (Actinemys marmorata) is listed as endangered in Washington and threatened in Oregon. The Oregon Zoo works with Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) to help restore this shy reptile to its historic range through a unique head-starting program. As a result, Western pond turtle numbers are on the rise.

With the help of Global Giving supporters, another group of Western Pond Turtles is getting their “head-start” at the Oregon Zoo this winter. 13 new turtles, along with 4 hold overs from last year, are currently basking in the warmth and light of a simulated summer. In the wild, hatchlings become dormant in the cold. But the enhanced light and warmth at the zoo stimulates them to continue to eat and grow.

And they are all growing quickly. The four hold overs who were hatched in September 2012 now weigh between 106-145 grams and the new hatchlings are 30-75 grams. They will likely be released in July or August of 2014. By this time, they will be large enough to have a fighting chance in the wild.

The turtles are raised in the conservation lab within the Pacific Northwest Exhibit of the Oregon Zoo, so visitors and zoo campers are able to observe their growth and learn more about this important conservation project. 

On behalf of the turtles, zoo conservationists and our young learners, thank you!

Zoo Camp at the Conservation Lab
Zoo Camp at the Conservation Lab
Turtle Release
Turtle Release

Once again, this past August the Oregon Zoo released a group of turtles that had participated in “head starting” – a chance to grow too big to be eaten by non-native predators. For 10 western pond turtles reared at the Oregon Zoo, a nearly yearlong stretch basking in the warmth and light of a simulated summer helped them grow large enough to have a fighting chance in the wild. These turtles were released in August, in addition to the 21 who were released in June. The cycle begins again, as another group of 13 hatchlings from this September are now being housed in the big turtle tubs, and are gaining weight weekly.

"Here at the zoo, the turtles experience summer year-round, so they don't go into hibernation," explains Dr. David
Shepherdson, Oregon Zoo conservation scientist. "In 11 months, they grow to about the size of a 3-year-old wild turtle and have a much greater chance of surviving to adulthood." Once the turtles reach about 70 grams (a little
more than 2 ounces), they are returned to their natural habitat and monitored for safety.  "At this size, the young turtles are able to avoid most of the predators that threaten them, such as non-native bullfrogs," Shepherdson said. In one study, scientists estimated that 95 percent of the turtles released back to sites in the Columbia Gorge survive annually.

Now listed as an endangered species in Washington and a sensitive species in Oregon, the western pond turtle was once common from Baja California to the Puget Sound. The biggest threat to fragile baby turtles has been the bullfrog. Native to areas east of the Rockies, this nonindigenous frog has thrived throughout the West, driving pond turtles and a host of other small, vulnerable aquatic species to the brink of extinction.

With the help of our GlobalGiving supporters, the Oregon Zoo is working to conserve and restore populations of this vital native animal and their numbers are on the rise. Over the past two decades, approximately 1,500 turtles have been released, and with good results: the gorge turtle population ranged from a low of 150 in 1990 to approximately 1,500 in 2011. Scientists tracking them estimate that 95 percent of the turtles released to sites in the Columbia River Gorge have survived.

Links:

Oregon Zoo keepers return a turtle to the wild
Oregon Zoo keepers return a turtle to the wild

It’s Turtle Season!!!  ... Turtle comings and goings from Oregon Zoo's Conservation Lab

The group of young western pond turtles that Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife field biologists delivered to us in May of 2012 really got big fast and were recently returned to spend the rest of their lives in the wild.

GlobalGiving donors might remember that instead of collecting these baby turtles right after hatching in September 2011, biologists allowed these hatchlings to spend their first winter as they naturally would - hiding in the mud and dirt in and around the ponds in the Columbia River Gorge. When these young turtles began to emerge from their hiding places in early May of 2012, biologists collected them so they wouldn’t be eaten by invasive predators. When collected, these 17 little guys were still about the same size as they were when they had hatched (~5-10 grams) since they had not been eating during their winter hibernation.

Biologists brought these hatchlings to the safety of the Oregon Zoo Conservation Lab last May for “head starting” – a chance to grow too big to be eaten by non-native bullfrogs and bass. Within four months, these 17 were over 100 grams!  They were joined by 21 freshly-hatched turtles in September that brought our winter count to 38. The size difference between the May and September arrivals was obvious at first but now some of last fall’s hatchlings have grown larger than their older cousins in our Lab.

This May, those hatchlings were joined by four more collected in the Gorge. Once again, these were animals that had wintered out in the wild. As of this report, they are still VERY small turtles! If you come by the Lab during the month of August, you can see these little guys in the Conservation Lab window. These four will be with us until next spring.

On June 21st, field biologists released a group of our largest 27 youngsters into the same ponds in Washington where they were collected last May. All reports are that they are thriving in the wild!  We plan to release another batch of turtles next month. Before we do, however, they will be given some identifying marks on their carapaces (shells) as well as transponder chips implanted by our veterinary staff. These provide us with a means of permanently identifying head-started turtles so that we can track their progress in the wild.

By September, we will have a new batch of freshly-hatched western pond turtle babies in our warm Conservation Lab in the Cascades building basking under the sun lamps, swimming in heated pools and enjoying a great variety of food items.

With your help, our turtle project continues to support the recovery of this imperiled species here in the Pacific Northwest and is a great example of how the Oregon Zoo is fulfilling our mission to inspire our community to create a better future for wildlife. Since 1991, more than 1,500 western pond turtles have been raised and released by zoos in Portland and Seattle and the turtle population in the Columbia River Gorge has increased from 150 to 1,500.

If you come by the Oregon Zoo Conservation Lab to check on their progress, please be sure to introduce yourself as a GlobalGiving fan of turtles!

I am pleased to report that all of last fall's western pond turtle hatchlings are thriving in the Conservation Lab at the Oregon Zoo. As always, visitors to the zoo's Cascades Stream & Pond building are invited to check on the turtles' progress and say "hello!"

Last fall, our multi-agency Western Pond Turtle Conservation Team (that also include representatives from the Woodland Park Zoo and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife) conducted a Population Viability Analysis (PVA) and the final report is due imminently. We will share report findings with our GlobalGiving supporters when they become available. After some 22 years of raising and releasing turtles to supplement dwindling populations in the wild, field biologists have identified two key issues that need to be addressed: 1) a disappointingly low number of wild, juvenile turtles (presumable due to ongoing bullfrog predation), and 2) potential adult mortality due to shell disease.

Finding out the scale, seriousness and cause of shell disease is a high priority as it may be a source of adult mortality which is a key to population sustainability.  We will be working with Conservation Team partners this year to tackle the disease issue and will continue to collect juvenile turtles in the wild and head start them for release in the Columbia River Gorge. Our goal, as always, is a self-sustaining network of western pond turtles populations in Washington State. Turtles are an important component of wetland ecosystems and sensitive indicators of wetland integrity and health. Wetlands provide us with clean water, nutrient recycling, flood protection, and support abundant wildlife populations including salmon in the Columbia River.

Thank you again for your generous support of this important conservation effort and we hope to see you at the zoo!

Sincerely,

David

January 10, 2013

Greetings from Oregon Zoo's warm and bright Conservation Lab!

The group of 9-month old youngsters that WA game biologists delivered to us last spring is really getting big! You might remember that instead of collecting them right after hatching, field biologists allowed these hatchlings to spend their first winter as they naturally would - hiding in the mud and dirt in and around the ponds in the Columbia Gorge where they were hatched. When these young turtles began to emerge from their hiding places in early May, biologists collected them so that invasive bullfrogs and bass would not eat them.

These turtles were then brought to the safety of the Oregon Zoo Conservation Lab to grow. When they were caught these17 little guys were still about the same size as they were when they hatched (~5-10 grams), since they had not been eating during cold winter weather in the Gorge. If you stop by our Conservation Lab (inside our Cascade Stream and Pond exhibit building), you will see that these turtles have grown considerably!  Many already reaching over 100 grams! They will definitely be ready to release this year!

In September of 2012 these 17 were joined by 21 freshly hatched turtles that were quite a bit smaller at 5-10 grams. This brought our winter count to 38. The size difference between some of the May and September babies is obvious, as the May babies had plenty of food available to them all summer here in the lab. However we now have some overlap in size between the two groups.

So we now have 38 hatchlings in our four turtle pools in the Conservation Lab. The ones you see in the upper tubs are the smaller, more recent hatchlings and the ones in the lower tubs are the big guys that were collected last spring.

Who knows? By next May we could have more late starters joining us again and all of our present ones should be ready to release in July or August!

With your help, our turtle project continues to support the recovery of this imperiled species here in the Pacific Northwest and is a great example of how the Oregon Zoo is fulfilling our mission to inspire our community to create a better future for wildlife. If you come by the Lab to visit the turtles, please be sure to introduce yourself as a Global Giving fan of turtles!

 

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Organization Information

Oregon Zoo Foundation

Location: Portland, OR - USA
Website: http:/​/​www.oregonzoo.org/​OZF
Project Leader:
Mavia Haight
Grants Manager
Portland, Oregon United States
$36,809 raised of $48,684 goal
 
654 donations
$11,875 to go
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