Day 3: Free Willies
Visit Day 2 here
Stephanie Winton is a conservation biologist from the interior of British Columbia, where you can usually find her in the field studying at-risk reptile and amphibian species. She recently joined us in the Fraser Valley, where the team, led by biologist Maja Hampson is working on multiple captive breeding, head-starting, and monitoring projects for endangered species.
I am at the Greater Vancouver Zoo again today, and Maja and I are sorting through hundreds of tiny western painted turtles in the specially-designed tubs for ones that look a little bit bigger than their siblings. You might wonder why we are sorting turtles – well it is because they are going to be released back into the wild today!
Remember those nesting turtles we were monitoring? Sometimes eggs must be collected from nests in vulnerable areas like the dike, which is susceptible to flooding or human disturbance. The salvaged eggs are incubated and hatched in captivity. Since the sex of turtle hatchlings is determined by the temperature that the eggs are incubated at, half the eggs are kept at a slightly cooler temperature to produce males and the other half is slightly warmer for females.
Once the turtles hatch, they are cared for until they are big enough to be released; a conservation practice called headstarting. The turtles need to be at least 30 grams before they are released to help give them a fighting chance against invasive predators such as bullfrogs and wide-mouth bass.
The turtles we are sorting today hatched last year but did not reach a big enough size to be released before winter. Just like with the nesting females in the field, we weigh and identify all the hatchlings based on their belly markings. As a second form of identification these little guys are also implanted with micro-chips giving each one an individual serial number so that they can be identified if they are captured in the future during population monitoring.
Maja and I head to two of several sites within the Fraser Valley and Lower Mainland where Wildlife Preservation Canada is helping bolster the wild western painted turtle populations in the hope that they will start to breed and become self-sustaining in the future.
We meet up with some enthusiastic staff from Metro Vancouver Regional Parks – another great project partner that assists the turtles through restoration of wetland habitat within Vancouver Parks. It is an exciting moment for all of us as the turtles are released to their native habitat. The future of the population rests on the shells of these little guys who quickly disappear into the vegetation, seeming right at home in the wetland already (check out this neat video from a release last year).
Back at the zoo it is time to take care of the hatchlings that are not yet quite big enough to be released. The turtles are fed a variety of food each day from “fish sticks” to the mysterious “turtle loaf”. Baby turtles are messy eaters and of course eating makes them poop so the turtle tubs must be cleaned every day as well. I can tell you I sure used a lot of elbow grease! Cleaning the tubs, which house around 15 turtle tots each, also gives us an opportunity to check on the health of the turtles, look for signs of developmental conditions like soft-shell that can affect captive populations, and give them special care if necessary. At the end of the day all 200 some turtles are contentedly swimming around in their clean tubs or basking under the heat lamps.