Professor (slightly out of focus) holds a small turtle with tracking device on its back.

Boosting survival for hatchlings

Conservation experts help give rare turtles impenetrable head start on life

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Holding a radio receiver, biology graduate student Faith Kuzma strode purposefully toward an area of thick vegetation near a trail in a Barry County nature center.

The transmission was telling her that the creature she was expecting to find, an Eastern box turtle hatchling, was in the area. But the tiny hatchling was behaving like an Eastern box turtle by hiding, making it difficult to locate.

A hand holds up a turtle, that is a bit older and has developed the hinged shell on it's underbelly. There is an arrow pointing to the part of the shell near the top, which is the hinged part.

This Eastern box turtle has developed the hinge on its shell that allows the species to form a protective box when threatened.

Jennifer Moore, associate professor of wildlife biology and natural resources management, joined Kuzma in sifting through the vegetation, and the pair eventually found the hatchling, outfitted with a tiny transmitter. Small and vulnerable, the turtle had continued to evade the predation that is a disproportionate threat to these animals, particularly from raccoons.

Next, Moore and Kuzma walked along the trail to a different point in the Pierce Cedar Creek Institute, where they expected to find an Eastern box turtle released in May after spending about nine months at John Ball Zoo in what is called a headstarting program, helping them grow faster than they would when born in the wild.

This turtle, while only a year older than the first hatchling, was substantially larger and, crucially, had developed the hinge on its shell that allows the species to form a protective box for other body parts when threatened by a predator. Once they can do that, Moore said, the turtles are nearly impenetrable “tanks.”

That’s why the boost this and other turtles have received as hatchlings could hold the key to helping restore a small, aging Eastern box turtle population at Pierce Cedar Creek Institute.

Moore and Bill Flanagan, conservation manager at John Ball Zoo, have for several years led efforts on a collaboration at the nature center to carry out this conservation technique, one that Moore says is demonstrably working.

“So far they are having such great survival,” Moore said. “Adult turtles are facing all sorts of mortality that they wouldn’t have in the past, so our hope is that we can boost the survival of these younger age classes to compensate for some of that adult mortality that we can’t really control.”

Growth, not dormancy

The accelerated growth of the hatchlings during the headstarting process is achieved by keeping them fed in the months after their birth. In the wild, hatchlings go to sleep and into dormancy soon after they are born, Moore said.

Feeding the babies right after birth allows them to achieve three to four years of growth in less than a year. Importantly, that sped-up maturation process allows them to develop the hinge on their shell to enclose themselves and diminish their susceptibility to predators, Moore said.

Headstarting starts with gathering eggs from nests, typically in August. Kuzma tracked mothers, sometimes late at night, to see when they might be laying eggs. Mother Eastern box turtles can be picky about their nesting areas, often checking out several spots before settling on a location for the typical clutch of three to 12 eggs, Moore said.

The eggs are then brought to the zoo, where they are incubated until hatching. After hatching, some of babies are placed in plastic tubs on shelves in a special room in the zoo’s quarantine area at the veterinary hospital. Color codes connect them to their mothers, who are given names of fruit to distinguish them. These babies are part of the headstarting.

Two people in green John Ball Zoo shirts smile for the camera against a background of plants.

Bill Flanagan, conservation manager at John Ball Zoo, and Kaylee DeBoef, veterinary technician, have collaborated on the headstarting program.

Some hatchlings are returned to the nature preserve’s grounds and outfitted with transmitters to monitor their survival without the advantages of headstarting. The tiny hatchling that Kuzma and Moore dug out of the vegetation was part of a clutch from “Pear,” who unfortunately was found deceased later, after her eggs were laid. 

A few of Pear’s babies were also part of the headstarting group. Those hatchlings, along with those from other mothers, are given a living environment that mimics the wild while also providing some enhancements.

The tubs each contain sphagnum moss, allowing the hatchling to engage in their natural behavior of burrowing, Flanagan said. One set of lights encourages basking behavior, while another set provides the necessary UVB rays to promote bone growth.

They receive a specialized diet of pellets and worms. And they also have regular “salad days,” when turtle salads, including ingredients like greens, carrots, and radishes, appear in their tubs.

The special salads are also specially sized, meaning the zoo team is also peeling and cutting the vegetables and fruits in the salad to make the ingredients an edible size for the turtle hatchlings, said Kaylee DeBoef, veterinary technician. 

Beyond the conservation aspect of this effort, the information gathered is also providing a deeper understanding of these turtles with a geographic range from northern Michigan to Florida to the East Coast. The information on babies and younger turtles is particularly limited, the researchers said.

At its core, though, headstarting is a vital conservation technique, Flanagan said, adding that a signature focus of the zoo’s conservation program is Michigan’s rare turtles.

“You definitely want the natural systems to run on their own as much as possible,” Flanagan said. “But these animals and these habitats are in the situation they’re in because of anthropogenic impact and to think they’re just going to fix themselves with us not touching it is not viable.”

Student researcher, key role

For four years now, first as an undergraduate and now as a graduate, Kuzma has done the intensive fieldwork necessary to track these turtles. Flanagan said Kuzma is tracking more than two dozen turtles, which he described as an enormous undertaking.

Added Moore: “Faith is really driving the project. None of this would happen without Faith.”

Kuzma, who was living in housing provided by Pierce Cedar Creek Institute, has a deep familiarity with the grounds and the way the turtles inhabit the area.

“I feel like this has been a really good lesson in the power of collaboration. We have the Institute, and John Ball Zoo and Grand Valley and without any one of those pieces this project wouldn’t be possible,” Kuzma said.

Kuzma, who hopes to continue research work with turtles after graduation, said the opportunity to take a lead role in this project provided valuable experience.

“I’ve learned a lot about how to do science and how to plan out a field season and what goes into seeking grants,” Kuzma said.

The research team is evaluating how long to continue with the headstarting program or to possibly develop other conservation techniques. The researchers say they have been encouraged by the survivability of the turtles and their behavior when reintroduced to the wild.

“This is one of the coolest, most hands-on, boots-on-the-ground projects,” Moore said. “We’re having this direct impact on these animals, and it’s very obvious and measurable.”

Person looks into a white bin, in front of her are more white bins on a shelf lit with warming lights.

Kaylee DeBoef, veterinary technician at John Ball Zoo, inspects the new Eastern box turtle hatchlings inside plastic tubs.

A sign from the Pierce Cedar Creek Institute is shown

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