Wood Turtles Clawing Back (With A Little Help From Their Friends)

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A wood turtle. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
A wood turtle. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

In a town in eastern Massachusetts there's a baseball field with a secret. The woods and wetlands around it are home to about 11 wood turtles. The turtles are so rare that conservationists want the exact location of the field kept under wraps, in order to protect the animals.

Conservationists from Zoo New England and the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife have begun a three-year program to monitor and protect these turtles, and also identify areas to possibly restore them. The baseball park offers a perfect place to work, because it provides an ideal mix of habitats for wood turtles. There are sandy slopes to nest, wooded forests and grassy fields with plenty to eat, and lots of marsh for ambling around.

It’s a prime location for the turtles. Except for the nearby road.

“Roads in and of themselves are probably the biggest problem for many of our rare turtle species in Massachusetts,” says Bryan Windmiller, the director of conservation at Zoo New England.

Windmiller says cars and habitat destruction are some of the biggest threats to wood turtles. And the turtle population has been declining for a long time: Henry David Thoreau’s observations in Concord imply there were a few hundred wood turtles in the town when he was alive; now researchers estimate there are 15 or less. Windmiller estimates there are only between 1,000 and 5,000 wood turtles left in the state.

"Right now, as we humans have become way more numerous, wood turtles and many other species have become much less numerous," Windmiller says.

Wood turtles are brown and have orange highlights on their legs and neck. They only grow to be 6 to 8 inches long, but need an area of 10 to 70 acres to live. That means one of these these tiny turtles could inhabit an area almost as big as both Boston Common and Public Garden put together. Conservationists say it's difficult to find the right mix of habitats wood turtles need in eastern Massachusetts. But it's important to help them, because they play a role in wetland ecosystems, which mitigate the effects of pollution and climate change.

Zoo New England field technician Ryan Roseen holds a wood turtle. (Jesse Costa)
Zoo New England field technician Ryan Roseen holds a wood turtle. (Jesse Costa)

Field biologist Julie Lisk and field technician Ryan Roseen of Zoo New England keep track of these animals via radio transmitters attached to the turtles’ backs. They also keep a close eye on the nests, sometimes putting up protective screening to keep predators and humans out. For one vulnerable nest, Lisk dug up the eggs.

“Because we’ve been here during ball games, and with people walking all over here, we knew [this nest] would be walked over," says Lisk. "Even if we put screening on it, it wasn’t an ideal location. So we dug that nest up and it’s in incubation.”

Lisk and her colleagues will watch over these eggs until they hatch. Then this fall these hatchlings and others will be raised in captivity — most of them in classrooms — to help the babies grow, away from predators. This is called "headstarting," and Windmiller says it offers an opportunity to educate school children about the species.

“We all know about rare tigers and elephants and polar bears, but we tend to know very little about the less flashy rare animals that live right in our backyards,” he says. “The kids take these little tiny super vulnerable turtles — it couldn't be more obvious how vulnerable they are, they come out the size of a fifty-cent piece — and by caring for them over the course of one school year, they grow these turtles to 20 times bigger than they were before.”

For Windmiller, conservation of wood turtles goes beyond preserving biodiversity and wetland habitats. Individual wood turtles can live as long as humans, which is meaningful for Windmiller.

"I think we really owe it to these animals to try to find some simple ways to keep them living right among ourselves," he says. "With just a little bit of help we can give them what they need to not only persist, but in cases like this, recover."

Conservationists examine a wood turtle at an unspecified location in eastern Massachusetts. (Jesse Costa)
Conservationists examine a wood turtle at an unspecified location in eastern Massachusetts. (Jesse Costa)

This segment aired on August 12, 2019.



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