The Western pond turtle was once common in creeks and lakes in the west but is now endangered in Washington, threatened in Oregon and of “special concern” in California. Researchers at Sonoma State University are studying why the turtle’s numbers have declined so sharply. SFGate describes some reasons:
The main culprits are habitat loss and disease. But another turtle – the dreaded, nonnative red-eared slider – is also responsible. People buy red-eared sliders as pets, because when they’re babies they’re the size of a jawbreaker and cost about 25 cents, then release them into local ponds when they cease being cute.
Red-eared sliders have proliferated, are slightly more aggressive than their cousins and tend to hog all the available turtle food, biologists said.
In addition, juvenile pond turtles are a “favorite snack” for numerous other animals from skunks to snakes, from bullfrogs to bass. Dave Riensche, a wildlife biologist at the East Bay Regional Park District (which is also studying the Western pond turtle), calls them “an all-you-can-eat dinner on predators’ menus” and describes once finding several baby turtles in a bullfrog’s stomach.
To help the turtles, Sonoma State researchers have collected their eggs and sent them to the Oakland and San Francisco zoos to be raised. After a year, the turtles are released: 38 raised in the San Francisco Zoo were released back into a marsh in Lake County last week and 44 reared in the Oakland Zoo are due to be released next week.
SFGate says that several hundred turtles have been successfully released back into the wild since the program started four years ago. Researchers have also been able to get a better understanding of turtle biology “such as how temperature affects their growth, health and gender characteristics.”
Riensche emphasizes the importance of studying why the turtles’ numbers have declined so sharply. Pond turtle populations in eastern Contra Costa County are thriving but, as Riensche notes, “We want to cure a problem before a cancer strikes. … Our goal is to keep these guys around for many more years to come.”
The video below shows the Oregon Zoo releasing 50 Western pond turtles back into the wild.
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Photo by Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife