Thursday, November 13, 2014

Giving Turtles a Head Start

*Guest post by Jethro Valido -one of several posts selected from the graduate EES3001 Scientific Literacy course at University of Toronto-Scarborough.

Photo from  Adopt-a-Pond at Toronto Zoo
When I think about turtles, the first things to come to mind are that they are slow and that they’ve been on Earth for forever. So it came to me as a surprise when I found out that most of Ontario’s turtles are actually endangered and at risk of disappearing in Ontario. In fact, seven out of the eight turtle species found in Ontario are threatened
and are in dire need of help in order to maintain populations. The problem with turtles are that they are extremely long-lived (can live up to 70+ years) and that they have a late sexual maturation (20-25 years). This makes it hard for us to study them and pin-point a cause to their decline, especially when action is required immediately.

So what exactly can we do to help their numbers from declining? One way we can help our turtles is through a head-start program. A head-start program is the process in which juveniles (in this case turtle eggs) are raised in captivity until they reach a certain age, and then they are release back into the wild. This is exactly what I am doing at the Toronto zoo; where we are head-starting the Blanding’s turtle.

The Blanding’s Turtle is one of the threatened species of turtles in Ontario. It can be easily identified and differentiated from other native turtles by its yellow throat and jaw. The biggest threats to this species are associated with humans; ranging from habitat loss due to land development, to being hit by cars when trying to cross roads due to habitat fragmentation, to predation from urban wildlife, such as raccoons, coyotes, skunks, etc. Though once numerous, their numbers have drastically declined, and to help restore their numbers, we are implementing a head-start program for this species at the zoo. This will help encourage the young to grow to maturity, where they have a higher success rate at surviving than when juveniles.

Photo from  Adopt-a-Pond at Toronto Zoo
The head-start program starts off with looking for Blanding’s turtle nests in at-risk locations. These locations are areas such as crop fields, where the eggs they would not have a good chance for survival. These eggs are then transported to the Toronto zoo where they are raised in captivity until they are 2 years old. The reason for this is to prevent predation. At birth, the turtles are very small and are easy prey for animals such as raccoons. By raising them until they are 2 in what could be called a “safe haven” for the turtles, they can grow to a sufficient size to deter predation once released. By deterring predation, their chances for survival is increased.  Once released, the turtles are tracked by radio-tracking devices and monitored.

The really interesting part about this all as a research student working at the Toronto zoo, is that there a lot of questions around the idea and process of head-starting. Although head-starting has been successful for sea turtles, its success is unknown for these freshwater turtles we have in Ontario; including Blanding’s turtle. The Toronto zoo is invested in this project long term, especially since the Blanding’s turtle has a late maturation, thus this project will be heavily research-based to understand the effects head-starting has on these turtles and whether the protocols are well-suited for the turtles. Because of this, there is a huge range of flexibility in adjusting or improving protocols and it is really something that can be applied to other turtle species around the world.

Photo from  Adopt-a-Pond at Toronto Zoo
The Adopt-a-Pond Program at the Toronto zoo is heavily involved with this project and they are quite determined to restore our Blanding’s turtle populations. With the release of these two year old turtles, Adopt-a-Pond is as well restoring their habitat; wetlands. Not only will these turtles receive help but they will act as an umbrella species to protect other threatened wetland species as well. Though we are not 100% certain whether head-starting will restore the Blanding’s turtle populations, this project is just a step in aiding declining turtle populations. From this, hopefully we can gain and discover answers to many of the questions concerning its decline, and eventually manage a long-term solution. Though rare today, hopefully one day, I can walk around the Rouge Park and bump into a yellow-throated turtle.

Here are some additional links:
-       Adopt-a-Pond Blog - Here, you can follow the Adopt-a-Pond team on their blog. They post up plenty of blogs following the status of their turtles (including Blanding’s turtles) and their releases
-       Earth Rangers Blog - Here, you can follow the Earth Rangers blog (Earth Rangers are in partnership to head-start the Blanding’s turtle). The website is mostly for children but they have posted up head-starting blogs. 

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