Geauga's Newest Resident - A Turtle - The Result Of Local Conservation Efforts

Standing waist deep in a marsh in the Geauga Park District, parks biologist Paul Pira holds up what looks like an old TV antenna. He’s tracking a spotted turtle, a reptile native to Northeast Ohio and the Great Lakes region. Pira is using VHF, or very high frequency, telemetry to track an adult turtle previously outfitted with a microchip.

The spotted turtle population has declined in recent years. Estimates indicate fewer than 10 inhabit the Geauga Park District -- and the reptile is on the state’s threatened species list. The decline prompted a partnership between the park district and Cleveland Metroparks Zoo.

“This program all started back in 2011 when Paul kind of brought a bunch of different organizations together and just realized that spotted turtles as a whole were declining in this area,” says Mike Selig, head of veterinary programs at the zoo. “It was kind of a first step to try and really kind of change the direction of that.”

Since 2012, park biologists endeavor to catch female spotted turtles in the springtime, when they’re more likely to contain eggs. That’s where the zoo comes in. After performing a radiograph to determine the presence of eggs, the zoo induces the turtle to lay the eggs.

The incubator stays above 87 degrees – intentional on the zoo’s part to ensure female hatchlings. Spotted turtles are a species of reptile where gender is determined by incubation temperature: above 87 degrees for female turtles and below 82 for males.

“If you look, you can kind of see the blood vessels on the underside of the egg, which indicates it’s a healthy egg,” says Selig, as he shines a penlight on the eggs. “In the back part there, is the actual baby turtle. Everything looks really good. We’ve got four healthy eggs. They’re about 3 ½ weeks through their development. Hopefully in about a couple more weeks we’ll get some hatchlings.”

The hatchlings will spend the next three years at the zoo, giving them time to mature in size, before biologists escort them to their permanent home in the wild. The program aims to provide a safe environment as the turtles develop, protecting them while they are most vulnerable. 

“This little special wetland is what biologists call a vernal pool,” says Pira, as he leads a group through an area of the park district. Pira and Selig carry a plastic tub containing a special new resident. After spending the first three years of her life at the zoo, this female turtle will soon take her first steps in the wild.

“She hatched out about three years ago as part of this head starting program,” says Selig. “We raised her over the last three years to really try and make her a size that she's going to be a little bit more predator proof. One of the big problems that we run into is that predators, like raccoons predominately, can eat these guys. So if we raise them up to a size that they’re a bit harder to just put right in your mouth, they have a bit higher chance to be able to survive.”

Aside from predators, other man made threats continue to contribute to the population’s decline.

“They need high quality wetlands. They need forested areas,” says Pira. “Number one is destruction of it for, you know development, big box stores and all those kinds of things. Number two is over collection and the illegal pet trade. I do want to kind of stress that it’s not really the right thing to take wild animals out of a park setting and take them home, especially little guys like this that are endangered or threatened in Ohio.”

Pira also points to roadway mortality as a major concern for turtle populations.

Turtles released in the Geauga Park District spend a few weeks acclimating to their new environment in a partially submerged cage. Biologists refer to it as a soft release. And, before they’re fully released to roam the wetlands, turtles are outfitted with a new accessory – vital to tracking their progress in the wild.

The day marks a momentous occasion for those involved in the program. This turtle is the third to be released through the partnership. But while there’s celebration, there’s also overwhelming concern for the population – and the need to do more. 

“Really what it comes down to is numbers. To get to that sustainable level we need to increase the number that we're putting out,” says Selig. “We're kind of talking about a number of different ideas because currently what we're doing, although it's definitely helping, I don't think it's the full solution. We're really kind of re-evaluating whether or not we start taking some of the spotted turtles produced from some of the populations in Northeast Ohio that are a little bit more viable and start augmenting this population with some of those.”

Selig says they’re also considering captive breeding, an approach that’s successfully been used to increase other species populations.

“Why, you know, who cares about a spotted turtle? Does it really matter if these animals go away? I get that question a lot,” says Pira. “It really comes down to a moral obligation, I think, to future generations. I want my children to be able to come out to this park and see a spotted turtle. I mean, who are we to say that one species is more important than another here on Earth? It really boils down to that, and you know I would like their grandchildren to come out and see spotted turtles. That's kind of the satisfaction of doing this.”

Additional Information:

Lake Erie Allegheny Partnership for Biodiversity - Spotted Turtles

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