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Blanding's turtle

Blanding's turtles

Blanding's Turtles

The Blanding’s turtle, Emydoidea blandingii, ranks near the top 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.

Zoo New England’s Field Conservation Department, in collaboration with the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and a number of local agencies and organizations, is monitoring and helping to protect four different Blanding’s turtle populations around the state. Working with local volunteers and our project partners, we 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, we and our partners work with about 40 Massachusetts schools each year to raise (“headstart”) hatchling turtles for nine months, and then release them back into their native habitats. We've demonstrated that our headstarted juveniles survive and thrive after their release. Through our Blanding’s turtle headstarting projects, we recruit over 3,000 Massachusetts school children each year to get outdoors and directly help in the recovery of one of our Commonwealth’s rarest wild animals.

The Threat

Blandingsturtle1 BoxBlanding’s turtles (Emydoidea blandingii) are long-lived animals. Some live to 80 years of age or beyond. They're also very slow to mature; many Massachusetts females lay their first eggs at around 20 years old. These traits make Blanding’s turtles vulnerable to decline and local extinction if human-caused factors increase the mortality rates of juveniles and adults. At the Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Concord, Massachusetts, home to one of New England’s largest and most genetically unique Blanding’s turtle populations, the number of turtles has declined sharply from an estimated 135 adults and older juveniles in 1971 to about 55 individuals at present. Over the same time period, many smaller New England populations of Blanding’s turtles have either disappeared entirely or dwindled to just a handful of older adults with hardly any young turtles.

The causes of Blanding’s turtle decline in our area are similar to those that have caused the sharp population decreases in other rare New England turtle species in recent decades. These include:

  • the death of adults and juveniles through car strikes on our increasingly busy roads;
  • the loss of dense but treeless wetlands due to a variety of human land-use factors;
  • the disappearance of scrubby field-edges, critically important to nesting female turtles;
  • an increase in the density of several mammal species which eat turtle eggs and juveniles, among them raccoons, skunks, mink, and even eastern chipmunks, which are major predators of hatchlings.

Giving Blanding’s Turtles a Headstart

BlandingsfeatureThrough our award-winning Hatchling and Turtle Conservation through Headstarting (HATCH) program, we “headstart” hatchlings each year, caring for them indoors from the early autumn when they emerge from their nests until May or June. During this headstarting period, the young Blanding’s turtles grow very quickly, so much so that by their release at about 9 months of age, our 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. Through radiotracking more than 100 young turtles after their release, we estimate that at Great Meadows, for example, by protecting turtle nests and headstarting some of the young, our efforts give each Blanding’s turtle egg and hatchling about a 30 times better chance of surviving to reach adulthood. 

Blandingsfeature2As the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife has demonstrated through their more than 30-year-old headstarting program for the endangered northern red-bellied cooter turtle, headstarting efforts, when carefully managed, can be a vital tool in the recovery of rare turtle species. It is, however, just one management tool and one that requires a great deal of effort. Our goal, with Blanding’s turtles and all the rare species that we work to help, is to help in the recovery of populations that can be sustained in the future with as little ongoing human intervention as possible. Towards that end, we help determine what habitats are most critical to the populations that we work with and, where it makes sense and is feasible, work to create or enhance suitable habitat. At the same time, our conservation efforts, led by the huge number of people directly involved in our headstarting programs, help to form knowledgeable and engaged communities of people who are the most critical conservation resource. Our children and future generations have the power to determine whether or not Blanding’s turtles and other are wildlife thrive and brighten the world of future New Englanders in the decades to come.