Baby eastern box turtles are growing stronger at John Ball Zoo in Grand Rapids, Mich., as part of the Zoo’s partnership with Grand Valley State University (GVSU) and the Pierce Cedar Creek Institute to save the species from population decreases. The partnership supports fieldwork that helps “head-start” the rare turtles and protect them from predators.
Head-starting is a conservation practice in which young animals are raised with human intervention and released into the wild when they are less susceptible to predators. In this case, a universal problem for Michigan’s turtles is the skyrocketing raccoon population. Raccoons are top predators of baby turtles and turtle nests.
“Many people don’t realize that the turtles we sometimes see in our backyards or crossing the street are imperiled, and this important project helps us understand how we can further protect this valuable species,” said Bill Flanagan, conservation manager at John Ball Zoo. “Conservation is at the center of everything we do at John Ball Zoo, and partnerships like this help make a difference in our local ecosystem. We’re grateful to GVSU and Pierce Cedar Creek Institute for helping make a difference.”
The Zoo works with a Grand Valley State University graduate student studying the efficacy of head-starting and the ecology of head-started turtles. John Ball Zoo has raised and released 74 turtles throughout the last three seasons and currently has 12 baby turtles getting their head-start at the Zoo. The wild turtles are currently hibernating, and in May, the baby turtles will be released near the Pierce Cedar Creek Institute, their original habitat. The Institute is the primary funder of this research.
“This research is important because turtles live long lives, so we will be able to follow them into the future to assess the efficacy of the head-starting process,” said Matt Dykstra, field station manager at Pierce Cedar Creek Institute. “There are many reptilian and amphibian species that are also in population decline, and what we learn here could help us protect box turtles and other species throughout the state.”
John Ball Zoo has a long history of turtle conservation work and has been head-starting turtles since 2007. Grand Valley State University places trackers on the head-started turtles and tracks them post-release, documenting their survivorship and ecology. The knowledge gained will verify the validity of head-starting turtles as a conservation practice and inform future conservation strategies.
“Head-starting is a technique that can have incredibly positive effects on declining turtle populations, yet we lack information on the efficacy of this technique for eastern box turtles,” said Jennifer Moore, associate professor of wildlife biology and natural resources management at Grand Valley State University. “The partnership between GVSU and John Ball Zoo has been crucial for this project and the long-term conservation of these threatened turtles.”
Photo Credit: © John Ball Zoo
Edited by Sarah Gilsoul, a writer and communications program assistant at AZA.
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