Head start at the zoo’s turtle conservation lab is good news for this endangered Northwest species
Eleven quarter-sized northwestern pond turtles are making themselves at home at the Oregon Zoo. 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.
“These hatchlings are very vulnerable to predators,” senior keeper Sara Morgan said. “At this small size, a bullfrog can scoop up a mouthful 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.
Earlier this summer, Morgan and her colleagues helped Washington Fish and Wildlife biologists retrieve the turtle hatchlings from sites in the Columbia Gorge. At the zoo, 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 have everything they need to grow,” Morgan said. “When they return to the wild, they’re as large as a 3-year-old turtle.”
The northwestern pond turtle is considered endangered in Washington and a sensitive species in Oregon. Two decades ago, they 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.
“Each hatchling is critical,” Morgan said. “We need to increase the number of turtles in the wild if we’re going to save this species from extinction.”
Visitors can watch the hatchlings grow inside the zoo’s Nature Exploration Station. For video, visit bit.ly/TinyTurtles2023.