Fourth Graders to Aid Turtle Conservation Effort

On October 15, fourth graders were thrilled to meet two Blanding’s turtle hatchlings from the vast Hockomock swamp in southeastern Massachusetts. The fourth graders will care for the hatchlings in their science classroom until next spring, when they’ll be released back into their native habitat larger, healthier, and better prepared to survive and thrive in the wild.

The turtles came to Shore as part of Zoo New England’s Grassroots Wildlife Conservation program, which helps to protect threatened turtles around the state from increased predator populations, car strikes on busy roads, and habitat decline. The Blanding’s turtle ranks as one of the most threatened wildlife species in the northeastern United States. It’s possible that fewer than 3,000 individuals of this relatively large and gentle freshwater turtle species remain in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, New York, and Pennsylvania combined. In Massachusetts, where most of the northeastern Blanding’s turtles live, only four populations are currently known to have 50 or more adult turtles.

Working with local volunteers as well as the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Zoo New England scientists radio-track turtles, protect their nests, and, where possible, restore or enhance critical wetland and nesting habitat. To directly aid in the recovery of declining Blanding’s turtle populations, Zoo New England works with about 40 Massachusetts schools each year to “headstart” hatchling turtles for nine months. During this headstarting period, the young Blanding’s turtles grow very quickly, so that by their release at about nine months of age, headstarted turtles are about the same size as wild 3-4-year-olds. This boost in early growth rate leaves the turtles much better protected from predators.

According to Lower School science teacher Erik Swanson, “Participating in this program gives students a chance to actively participate in a real-world rare species conservation effort, all while learning about wildlife conservation, wetland ecology, and landscape history.” Fourth graders will collect and analyze data on hatchlings’ growth, and as the culmination of their efforts, they’ll see the turtles released back into the wild at a local conservation area. “By helping protect native biodiversity and restoring healthy wetlands in their communities,” says Swanson, “students learn that they can be agents of change in a small but significant way.”