A person holds a baby turtle.

Young turtles that are focus of collaborative conservation effort faring well so far; second year underway

On a recent hike at a Barry County nature preserve, a team that included Grand Valley biologist Jennifer Moore and her research partner from John Ball Zoo searched for signs that nine Eastern box turtles who were given a head start on survival as hatchlings were behaving as they should in the wild.

What they found: Nine turtles, burrowed nicely into the ground for the winter, said Moore, associate professor of biology. Just as they were supposed to be.

This was the latest indication that the first year of a conservation program between Grand Valley and the zoo, called headstarting, was a success. Researchers said the finding provides hope for the group of turtle hatchlings that are part of the second year.

Researchers had also found that the first group of nine put on weight over the summer and, most importantly, of course, successfully avoided predators, Moore said.

"They had a banner year," she said.

A special cage used in the project
A specialized cage is placed over the eggs.
A student uses radio telemetry to find turtles.
Faith Kuzma, a student who is continuing to work on the project, uses radio telemetry during a summer search for the turtles.
A baby turtle
One of the turtles from the first year that is being monitored.

Headstarting involves placing specialized cages over eggs that are laid during the summer and hatch in early fall. The hatchlings are gathered and brought to the zoo for feeding and monitoring over the winter, Moore said.

Because they are fed over the winter rather than immediately going to sleep and into dormancy, the babies achieve three to four years of growth, Moore said. Crucially, the maturation process also allows them to develop the hinge on their shells that allows this species to form a box to enclose other body parts when threatened.

A mature shell provides armor that is nearly impossible for predators to fully penetrate, Moore said. Before that maturation, though, young turtles are highly susceptible to predators, particularly raccoons.

Moore credited Bill Flanagan, John Ball Zoo conservation manager, for ensuring that the hatchlings were developed under the proper conditions to enable their survival in the wild.

Flanagan is overseeing the development of 20 hatchlings at the zoo this winter. Next year, that group will be fitted with the radio transmitters so the headstarting team can track the turtles on the grounds of Pierce Cedar Creek Institute; the team also will continue to track the first cohort.

An adult Eastern box turtle
An adult Eastern box turtle that is part of the small, aging population the conservation effort is trying to boost.

The goal is to create a statistically relevant sample size over multiple years to expand knowledge about the species that has a geographic range from northern Michigan to Florida to the East Coast, Moore said. While researchers have data on adults, information on babies and younger turtles is scant.

Representatives from the nature preserve, who were interested in increasing their small, aging Eastern box turtle population, have expressed excitement over the success so far, Moore said.

And Moore said a project such as this, where the survival and population of a species is boosted, is at the heart of her work as a conservation biologist.

"It's a great on-the-ground conservation project with great consequences for the turtles scientifically," Moore said. "We're also learning something about this technique of headstarting, which is becoming more common."


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