Fifteen baby Western Pond Turtles arrived last week at the Oregon Zoo. Smaller than a nickel, the hatchlings are extremely vulnerable to predators. To give them a fighting chance, the tiny turtles were collected from the wild and will be reared in the Zoo’s turtle conservation lab until they’re big enough to go back to the pond.
“Baby turtles are really small when they hatch, so they’re the perfect size for a lot of animals to eat,” said Shelly Pettit, the Zoo's Senior Keeper for Reptiles and Amphibians. “And the biggest problem they have right now are the invasive, or introduced, bullfrogs — they prey on turtle hatchlings right out of the nest.”
The Western Pond Turtle is native to the United States. They are currently classified as “Vulnerable” by the IUCN. Several predators threaten this species, especially the hatchlings, due to their small size and soft shell.
Raccoons, otters, ospreys, coyotes, weasels, and bullfrogs are predatory threats to the Pond Turtle. The American Bullfrog is the largest frog species in North America. It can tip the scales at more than a pound and has been driving the Pond Turtle to the brink of extinction.
Last week, Pettit and her colleagues took charge of 15 Western Pond Turtle hatchlings, collected by the Washington Fish and Wildlife Service from sites in the Columbia Gorge. The zoo is “head-starting” these tiny turtles, caring for them until next spring when they will be large enough to avoid the bullfrogs and have a fighting chance on their own in the wild.
Unlike recovery programs for other endangered species like California Condors or Taylor’s Checkerspot Butterflies — which take place offsite or behind the scenes — this conservation effort is easy to see. Oregon Zoo visitors can watch the small turtles as they grow inside the zoo's Nature Exploration Station.
The turtles at the Zoo will experience summer year-round, with heat lamps and plentiful food, so they don’t go into hibernation.
“We keep these little turtles warm, safe and well-fed in the lab,” Pettit said. “As a result, they grow to about the size of a 3-year-old during the nine months that they stay with us.”
Once the turtles reach about 50 grams (a little more than 2 ounces), they are returned to their natural habitat and monitored for safety.
The Western Pond Turtle, once common from Baja California to the Puget Sound, is listed as an endangered species in Washington and a sensitive species in Oregon. Two decades ago, Western Pond Turtles were on the verge of completely dying out in Washington, with fewer than 100 left in the state. Since then, more than 1,500 zoo-head-started turtles have been released back into the wild.
“We’re at a critical point with this species,” said Pettit. “We really have to grow them up in their population numbers if we’re going to save them in time.”
The Western Pond Turtle Recovery Project is a collaborative effort by the Oregon Zoo, Woodland Park Zoo, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bonneville Power Administration, USDA Forest Service and other partners.