Endangered Northwest species gets a head start at the zoo's turtle conservation lab
Ten tiny northwestern pond turtles have arrived at the Oregon Zoo’s conservation lab. The zoo is “head-starting” the endangered reptiles, caring for them until next spring when they will be large enough to have a fighting chance in the wild.
Visitors can watch the hatchlings grow inside the zoo’s Nature Exploration Station.
“The hatchlings are especially vulnerable at this stage,” said Sara Morgan, senior keeper for the zoo’s Great Northwest area. “They’re smaller than a walnut — so tiny, a bullfrog can gobble them up right out of the nest.”
The American bullfrog, native to the eastern United States but considered invasive here, is the largest frog species on the continent. It can tip the scales at more than a pound and has been driving pond turtles and a host of other small, vulnerable aquatic species to the brink of extinction.
In late May, Morgan and her colleagues helped Washington Fish and Wildlife biologists retrieve the turtle hatchlings from sites in the Columbia Gorge, transporting them to the zoo conservation lab. With heat lamps and plentiful food, the turtles experience summer year-round so they don’t go into hibernation. Once they reach about 50 grams (a little more than 2 ounces), they are returned to their ponds and monitored for safety.
“We make sure they’re safe and warm, and have all the food they need,” Morgan said. “When they go back to the wild, they’re only about a year old but they’re as big as 3-year-old turtles.”
The northwestern pond turtle, also known as the western pond turtle, is listed as an endangered species in Washington and a sensitive species in Oregon. Two decades ago, western pond turtles were on the verge of completely dying out in Washington, with fewer than 100 turtles left in the state. Since then, more than 1,500 zoo-head-started turtles have been released.
“This is a critical time for these turtles,” Morgan said. “We need to get their population numbers up if we’re going to save the species.”
The Western Pond Turtle Recovery Project is a collaborative effort by the Oregon Zoo, Woodland Park Zoo, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bonneville Power Administration, U.S. Forest Service and other partners.